Damn my hips.
I shifted to the right, hoping the dagger on my left hip would slide over the window frame and allow me to shimmy inside with greater ease. I probably should have taken the blasted thing off before trying to shove myself through a tiny window, but you know . . . hindsight and all.
Why does this have to be the only way into this stupid home?
The mark, a shifter mafia leader, must have thought no one would come after him while he was on the toilet. And honestly, it was a good assumption.
How many people could scale four stories, and squeeze themselves through a window barely bigger than a chihuahua sized doggie door?
I was among the few, and I’d only chosen this route because Xavier wanted this job done fast. What that dang vampire wanted, he usually got.
My fingers gripped the windowpane, and I pushed. Inch by inch I wiggled my way forward, until the next thing I knew, I was flying over the toilet and headed straight for the floor. Thankfully, my hands had remained in front of me. Air flew from them, cushioning my fall so I didn’t break my face.
Still, I hadn’t acted quickly enough to eliminate all the evidence of breaking and entering. The sound of my landing rang through the bathroom, loud and telling.
I leapt up and froze, waiting to see if anyone in the mansion had heard. Shifter ears were particularly sensitive. When no footsteps or voices came closer, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d gotten lucky.
Taking a moment to readjust my dagger, I caught my reflection in the mirror. My long, white-blonde braid had gone seriously astray in my struggle with the window.
I huffed out a breath and deftly fixed it. Even the most despicable marks—and they were all pretty nasty individuals—deserved more respect than being done in by someone who looked like hell.
Once I was presentable, I moved to the door and twisted the knob slowly. Entering the hallway, I scanned left and then right before turning in the direction of the master suite. Quick glances inside every room I passed confirmed that they were empty of people. Actually, they weren’t just empty. Most reminded me of staged rooms in a furniture store, cold and un-lived in.
I’d taken a right turn when confirmation that I was closing in on the mark hit my ear. Music, identifiable as a song from the first Godfather movie, trilled through the hallway, punctuated by bursts of male laughter.
The Godfather, how typical. He’s probably taking pointers.
I rolled my eyes and pulled my dagger from its scabbard, careful to keep the tip away from my skin.
Shifters were formidable foes, their senses unparalleled. They were also strong and could outlast most of their opponents. Especially when the shifter was a 250-pound alpha wolf, and his opponent was a 140-pound demi-fae.
But not even shifters could survive the batrachotoxin my employer purchased from South America for jobs like this one. Still, even with the aid of poison, I had to be silent as the night to succeed.
I called air again, and bid it to create a buffer along my skin, holding in my scent. Only when I was sure that defense was secure did I begin walking, dagger poised in my striking hand.
Once I reached the door to the theater room, I peeked inside.
An exhale left me. The alpha wolf was alone. This job would be much less messy than I’d expected.
I pressed the air buffer as far out as possible, bidding it to muffle my sound as well as my scent. Then, with bated breath, I tiptoed toward the brown leather sectional.
I had the good luck of arriving right in the middle of a scene riddled with gunfire. The sound system was on point, loud and crisp and perfect for covering my tracks. And, unsurprisingly, the alpha wolf was cheering and howling with laughter at every grizzly death.
Geez, this guy’s a disgusting asshole.
As I got closer, the scent of popcorn, buttery and delicious, filled my nostrils. I approached the couch and was close enough to distinguish the alpha’s gray hairs from the brown when the wolf-shifter turned slowly and stared me dead in the eyes.
“You’re a little young, aren’t you?” He spoke without a trace of fear in his well-lined face. Obviously, he’d never heard of me.
“I’ve been around the block a time or two,” I replied coolly.
A corner of his lips lifted. “We’ll see about that. Get her, boys.”
My stomach dropped as two figures appeared at the edges of the couch. Hulking wolf-shifters with pistols aimed straight at me.
I flew into motion, rebounding off the couch and into a roundhouse kick that clocked the closest wolf straight in the temple. As he fell, I swiped him with the dagger before twisting and hurling it at the other attacker. The blade landed on target—between his eyes—and he fell too. I yanked the dagger out of his skull, and was about to burst out of my crouch when the click of a gun cocking stopped me.
“Who sent you?” the alpha demanded.
I turned my neck ever so slightly to look at him, and he growled.
“Don’t move an inch, faerie. Now, answer me. Who sent you?”
“My boss. I don’t know who wants you killed, but they hired us for the job.”
I gave him a longer explanation than was necessary. It bought me time to figure out what to do. At this range, he wouldn’t miss me if he pulled the trigger.
“You aren’t around when he takes the jobs?” the alpha pressed. His need to learn who’d betrayed him was written all over his face.
“No. My boss called me today.” I tilted my head to the side as if I was thinking something over, hoping to deflect from my slight repositioning my dagger. “Maybe around five. So whoever wants you dead must have come in before that. It’s usually someone close to the mark. Who wasn’t around you today?”
His brows furrowed, unable to resist the urge to recall his day.
Knowing that I wouldn’t get another chance, I pushed a gust of air at him—straight in his eyes.
The gun went off, but I was already out of the line of fire, ducking and then hurtling over the couch. The alpha opened his eyes milliseconds before my blade sank into the side of his neck.
Blood spurted everywhere, splattering the rich brown leather of the couch, and my clothes. I pressed my lips together. I hated the thought of someone’s blood on my clothes.
A heartbeat later, the alpha fell. When he stopped breathing, my shoulders relaxed.
One more bad guy down.
Knowing that the alpha was no longer roaming the streets of L.A., doing shady criminal stuff to innocents, made what I had to do a little easier.
At least, that’s what I told myself so I could look in the mirror.
* * *
The door to my apartment whined open.
“I’m home!” I sang out, aware that no one would be there to welcome me.
Moving into the kitchen, I laid my scabbard on the counter, pulled a jug of OJ out of the fridge, and drank straight from the carton. After a brief examination of my meager rations, I settled on making mac and cheese with frozen peas tossed in for nutritional value. In my opinion, everyone needed to eat their veg.
Once the water was on the stovetop, I went to change. As soon as I stepped foot into my bedroom, my shoulders lowered and my heart rate slowed.
Despite Xavier’s warnings, I liked to keep a window cracked open to feel the fresh air on my face and watch the way my veil-like white curtains fluttered in a breeze. My bed was a massive canopy, also surrounded by gauzy linen. Sheepskin rugs littered the floor, and a teal pod chair, perfect for reading in, sat in the corner.
Unlike the shell I presented to the outer world, which included an all-black attire and hard attitude, this place was all softness and light and air. I loved it and hoped that when my contract with Xavier was complete, I could bring a bit of this feeling out into the world with me.
I stripped, releasing my wings from the bindings that allowed me to pass as human. I hated wearing the straps, but visiting an aether-blessed fae, the only type of fae with the ability to construct glamours to conceal such features, cost time and a lot of money. So much money that organizations like the government and fae academies often had an aether-blessed fae on retainer—but not Xavier Doru. When the vampire did hire one, he thought was better spent hiding my pointy ears.
His reasoning was sound. If my wings were rendered invisible, and therefore freed from their bindings, I’d still have to be careful that they didn’t hit anyone in crowds. The bindings were more practical than a glamour, even if they were annoying and stifling.
My clothes got tossed into the trash. I couldn’t wear them again without thinking of the shifters I’d killed.
After a hot shower to rinse the blood off my body, I wrapped myself in a loose, soft robe that gave my diaphanous gold-veined wings a little room to breathe, and padded barefoot to the kitchen.
The water was boiling, so I poured in the noodles. I’d finished stirring them when a knock came at the door.
My spine straightened, and I dashed to the counter where I’d set down my dagger.
As soon as I unsheathed the cold metal, a chuckle came from the other side of the door. “It’s me.”
I exhaled. Xavier.
I flung the door open to find the ice-blond vampire leaning against the entryway, looking as cool as a cucumber.
“How did you know I was home already?” I asked, unable to shake the idea that despite all our talks of trust and being a family, he’d bugged my place. After all, there was precedent.
Jax, my ex-boyfriend, knew that Xavier had been spying on him, but he’d never done anything about it. Well, nothing except live at my apartment until the day his contract was up, and then skip town without so much as a goodbye.
My heart clenched. It still hurt to think about Jax, the one person I’d thought I could trust. He’d been the first guy I’d given myself to and thought I loved. My best friend . . .
But I should have known better. No one wanted this life. Everyone who aged out of their contracts left as soon as they could.
I should have guarded my heart. Over the years, I’d learned many times that the ones closest to us had the power to hurt us most.
“Our client called. They wanted to thank you for a job well done.”
“They already know he’s dead? But it’s only been—” I glanced at the clock above the stove. “Forty minutes.”
“The mate was in the next room.” Xavier’s lips curled up as shock flitted across my face. “I see you didn’t realize she was present. You’re losing your touch, Queenly.”
I rolled my eyes and stirred the noodles again. “Please. I’m the best assassin you have. Just because I didn’t check all ten-thousand square feet of that monstrosity doesn’t mean I’m losing anything. It means that I was more direct—more lethal—than usual.”
Xavier chuckled. “I’ve always appreciated your inclination to get down to business.”
“In that case, why are you here?”
The vampire flopped onto my hard gray couch and planted his feet on the coffee table adorned with various sci-fi romance novels that I was halfway through. “What? We’ve known each other for so long! We can’t be pals? Paint each other’s nails?”
Pals? That was a laugh, coming from a vampire who I’d once called Father, only to receive a long lecture about how Xavier was better than both of my parents because he would never leave me—as long as I stayed in line.
The lonely child I’d been had signed away her freedom soon after that. My desperation had cost me greatly, and I’d been paying the price ever since.
“I don’t do pals. You know that.”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to bring that up. It’s something you should consider. In the real world, people appreciate being smiled at now and then.” He shook his head. “Maybe I should have let you get that cat. It might have softened you up a bit.”
My teeth ground together. His refusal to let me buy a kitten was a major sore spot. “This may not be made of silver but I’m sure I can do some damage with it.” I picked up my dagger and waved it at him. “Tell me what you want or get out. I’ve had a long day.”
He leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. “New job came in, and you’ve been requested. No details yet, but they’ll come in soon enough. Swing by my apartment at eight in the morning. I’ll have travel arrangements sorted out by then.”
I arched an eyebrow. “But I just finished a job.”
Xavier shrugged. “Money is money. Surely you understand?” He gestured to the empty room as if he was trying to make a point that he didn’t need to make.
I wasn’t yet a legal adult, so I lived in an apartment Xavier rented for me. Not only that, but I survived on the difference between the money my jobs brought in and what it took to pay back my debts to the vampire. A debt I had to repay or risk being hunted down by a team of fellow assassins or a vampire clan. I’d seen both groups hired for those who broke their contracts, and they always found their mark. As a result, I understood the value of money well. It bought freedom.
I also understood that Xavier was a cheapskate, and I couldn’t wait to age out of my contract. When that day came, I’d payoff the last of whatever I owed Doru and walk away. And I’d never look back.
I exhaled a long breath. “Why didn’t you text me?” The noodles were almost done, and I moved on autopilot, adding the frozen peas for thirty seconds before transferring the mix to a colander then back into the pan. I added an obscene amount of delicious butter, followed by the nuclear orange cheese powder, and stirred.
“I need you at my place early, and you would sleep through a bomb, Queenly. I couldn’t risk you missing the text.”
“Fine. I’ll be by tomorrow. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I began pulverizing the cheese clumps. “I’d like some personal time.”
Xavier stood, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Until tomorrow, blondie.”
I scowled at the hated nickname, and was about to retort something cutting when the sound of the front door shutting hit my ear.
Looking up from the pan of mac and cheese, I found myself alone yet again.
I parked my car a few blocks from Xavier’s beachfront apartment in Santa Monica, and got out to hoof it the rest of the way. I huffed, wishing the vampire didn’t love being in the thick of things. It would make my life so much easier if he lived in the ‘burbs and had a damn driveway.
Or even better, if Xavier would tell me my next mission over the phone.
At least it was early, so there were fewer cars and people around than there would be around midday, when people tended to flock to the beach. I wouldn’t have to worry about the nightmare crowds, because by then, I’d be long gone.
Stalking my next mark.
I inhaled deeply, trying to dispel my annoyance at having to take another job so quickly. We were usually given at least three days to recuperate, and I’d wanted to use them all. But apparently, Xavier knew I’d bounce as soon as possible, and he wanted to utilize my skills while he still could.
Eight days . . .
My shoulders loosened as the idea of freedom bolstered me, and the fresh ocean scent filled my nostrils, calming me. Since I was young, I’d loved the ocean. I felt a kinship with it, like I’d grown up with that big blue expanse watching over me, which was odd because until recently, I hadn’t lived anywhere near the beach. I breathed in again and a shiver of pleasure dashed through me. As I was a few minutes early, I considered dipping my toes in the sand so I could pretend I was on vacation.
My lips curled up slightly. Wouldn’t that be something? A real vaca—what the actual hell?!
I blinked as a white rabbit dressed in a cobalt-colored waistcoat, with a pocket watch hanging from the jacket, hopped out from behind a bush.
“Nooooo, I’m too young to go crazy.”
I rubbed my eyes. When I pulled my hands away, the rabbit was still there. Actually, he’d come closer, and was now standing four paces from me.
I reached for the dagger I wasn’t carrying.
What I’d planned on doing with it was anyone’s guess. It wasn’t like the rabbit was bothering me. Making me question my sanity, sure, but even then—I was just hallucinating a rabbit.
Or maybe he was a pet? My lips twitched because that had to be it. This was L.A., and people with stupid amounts of money dressed up their pets all the time.
“Did you lose your owner, buddy?”
“Owner?” The rabbit stood on his hindquarters and grabbed the pocket watch.
“Holy shit,” I breathed. Had the rabbit spoken?
“What’s this nonsense about owners? Oh, nevermind! If we don’t hurry, we’ll be late!”
Unable to believe what I’d heard, I looked around.
No one was nearby to verify if I was, in fact, losing my marbles.
“Did you hear me, Alice?” The rabbit thumped his foot and shook the watch. “We will be late!”
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but did you say my name?” I glanced from side to side again. “What are you, a rabbit-shifter, or something?”
I’d met a lot of shifters. They were usually larger, more ferocious animals, especially the seedier kind. I’d also encountered a few bird-shifters, but never a rabbit. Although that didn’t mean they didn’t exist.
It was the only explanation for the creature in front of me.
“I’m not some common shifter! I am a pooka!” The rabbit glowered up at me with luminous golden eyes. “And you’re late! We must get moving!”
A pooka . . . my shoulders relaxed slightly. That was some sort of fae race. One that was less common than the better known elves, faeries, or pixies.
The rabbit hopped closer, and pulled at the hem of my jeans. “Come now! We must leave. You’re la—”
“Late. Yeah, you said that,” I cut him off. “But to what? And actually, can we take this conversation into the park? I’d rather not let any humans see me talking to a rabbit. Xavier would have to hire a mind witch to erase their memories, and he hates working with witches.” I gestured to the left, feeling much too out in the open to be talking to a rabbit—or pooka, whatever—in broad daylight.
Without waiting for the rabbit to respond, I walked around the shrubbery and into the park.
He followed a moment later, hopping down the path I’d chosen with a huffy look on his face. “This is not the right way. We should go the opposite direction!”
“Why? And to where?”
“To the Wonderland Court!”
I stopped dead in my tracks and barked out a laugh. “The Wonderland Court? But why?”
“You are Alice Queenly, a fae brought up under the supervision of Xavier Doru, vampire lord, are you not?”
Xavier, vampire lord? I’d never heard Xavier described like that—at least not from others. I often thought of him as my overlord but there was no way I’d admit that out loud.
“Sure, that’s right,” I said slowly.
“Then you are precisely who I seek.” The rabbit put his little paw on his hip. “Word has it that the queen has sent mercenaries to find you. For your safety, we must leave now! We’re already late!” He held up his watch and shook it in my face.
My confusion cleared.
I didn’t know much about Faerie, the otherworldly realm named after the first fae creatures who had settled there. And I definitely didn’t know a thing about pookas, but I had plenty of experience with hired men.
I’d pissed someone off—a queen.
I was about to tell the rabbit that if some queen sent men to deal with me, then good luck to them. I’d kick their asses. But I swallowed my cocky proclamation when, after a particularly vigorous shake of his watch, I focused on the clock face.
It was eight o’clock.
“Holy shit! Xavier will be furious!” I whirled around and broke into a sprint.
“Alice! Come back!”
I twisted but didn’t stop. “Thanks for the heads-up, but don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself!”
He said something else, but I was already too far away to hear, and wasn’t about to turn around for clarification.
Xavier hated waiting, and I didn’t want to piss him off too. An angry vampire was the worst.
I was out of breath when I reached Xavier’s building and pressed the call button for his apartment.
He picked up, but said nothing.
“Sorry, I got held up,” I said, knowing it was better to admit the wrong right away.
The buzzer sounded, and I pushed the door open.
Throwing a wave at the armed security guard on duty, I dashed past the front desk, and into the elevator. I pressed the button for Xavier’s floor, leaving my finger on the pad so it could scan my print. One soft beep confirmed my access, and the elevator shot up fifteen floors.
I arrived at the door to the vampire’s penthouse as he opened it. His jaw, normally stone-like, was set even harder, and his eyes narrowed.
“I’m five minutes late and that includes my apology,” I said, trying to sound as if I wasn’t worried how he’d respond. “Deal with it.”
“You’re lucky I need you today, Alice, because I don’t just deal.”
No, Xavier didn’t deal with unexpected matters well at all. He was a control freak, and someone always paid the price for things that inconvenienced him, no matter how big or small. He’d never laid a finger on me, but I’d witnessed his cruelty among my peers—the other orphans he’d raised into killing machines.
I was glad the younger children in his care were far away, studying and practicing in the country mansion Xavier owned outside the city. Had they been nearby, I would worry about them.
“So, what’s the job?”
Xavier gestured to his raised drafting table that overlooked the Pacific Ocean.
Two guns glared up at me amidst a bunch of disorganized papers fluttering in the breeze from the open window. Once again, the scent of salt filled my nostrils.
I might not have gotten to chill at the beach this morning as planned, but at least I could enjoy this spectacular view for a few minutes.
Xavier lifted a plain manila envelope just as a bee slipped in through an open window and buzzed around his face. He swatted at it before turning his attention toward me.
“The mark is more dangerous than most. This contains everything you’ll need to know to bring him down. You’ll have to travel to Beijing, and our client wants it done by the end of the weekend. Your flight leaves in two hours.”
“Two hours?” My voice rose an octave. “Are you cra—holy crap!”
Xavier’s vampire reflexes kicked in as he grabbed a gun. Only a millisecond later, I moved for the other, as a flash of white appeared in the air next to us and fell to the floor.
“How many times do I have to tell you we’re late?” The white rabbit landed cleanly on the ground, and hopped right in front of me, not at all deterred by the guns pointed at him.
I lowered my weapon. “How did you even get in here?”
“I told you, I’m a pooka! I flew in.” The white rabbit gestured to the window, cracked open only two inches.
My eyebrows pulled together. “Okay, I’m going to need some clarification on that.”
He snapped his “fingers,” and suddenly, he was no longer fluffy or white or in the cobalt waistcoat, but a black horse with a blue blanket on his back. One stomp of his hoof, and the figure changed again, this time into a gray Persian cat with a blue collar.
The cat remained there only for a second before it was replaced by a bee buzzing around my head and screaming, “You’re late!” in a tinny voice.
Well, that explained how he’d gotten in the window.
“So you’re a shape-shifting fae who can take multiple forms?” I clarified.
“Yes,” the pooka said and returned once again to his rabbit form. “Most of us can change into many creatures—at least a dozen. Each individual pooka has their preferences and limits, but we’re much more adaptable than your common shifter.”
“Okay, I get it now. Although I am still not sure why you’re here.”
“That you don’t understand a thing is obvious.” The rabbit’s golden eyes shifted to Xavier. “Would you like to clear up a few things Mr. Doru?”
I was about to retort that me not knowing a thing was stretching it when Xavier gulped, and I twisted toward him.
His face was whiter than normal, which made my eyes pop open.
I didn’t think I’d ever seen Xavier intimidated by anyone in my life. And now a rabbit was making him anxious?
Xavier stepped forward. “She still has eight days with me. I have her parents’ word.”
The rabbit gave a single hop, and his balled-up fist shook at the vamp. “Eight days! Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself? She’s been in your care for thirteen years, and clearly knows nothing about her heritage or the rebellion, and you want to quibble about eight days?!”
The rabbit pulled out a fluff of white hair. “This is blasphemy! And what’s worse, it’s putting me even further behind!” He pulled the golden pocket watch out of his waistcoat again, glanced at it, and let out a scream. “Oh gods! She’ll have my head!”
My eyebrows furrowed, not sure what to make of that last statement, but needing answers. Sane ones.
“Xavier, when he says heritage, what’s he talking about?”
“He’s—” Xavier’s mouth snapped shut as the rabbit hopped onto the drafting table.
“The vampire hasn’t told you for thirteen years, and he clearly doesn’t want to tell you now.” The rabbit glared at Xavier. “Rumors flitted through the rebel ranks that he’s been using you in ways that we would not approve of. Until now, I didn’t believe them. Obviously, I was wrong. This sort of treatment nullifies the contract.”
“What do you know of the contract I signed?”
“The contract that you signed? I know nothing of the sort.” The rabbit scowled at Xavier. “However, I am knowledgeable about the contract your parents signed. The one that stated the vampire was supposed to raise you in hiding. Safely in hiding. You were to be taught how to defend yourself by one of the best fighters in this land. Your warden took things a step further than intended.”
“She learned to fight and defend herself with the best,” Xavier butted in. “In fact, she—”
“Shut up, Xavier,” I said. For once in my life, he actually listened, which only made my spidey senses tingle harder. I turned my attention to the pooka, determined to get to the bottom of this. “If you’re so concerned about me, why did it take you thirteen years to check on me?”
“Yeah, Rabbit.” Xavier crossed his arms over his chest. “What took you so long?”
The rabbit scoffed. “The channels from Wonderland into this world are controlled by the Red Queen. It took slipping past the kraken and sneaking into another court to open a portal to enter this world! I’ve since convinced a witch of your world to reopen one of the old portals to Wonderland, but only for a brief time.”
The rabbit glanced at me. “That being said, if you wish to reunite with those who care for you, your true family, we must go now.”
My true family? My heart lodged into my throat.
I’d long given up discovering my family, or where I’d come from, but occasionally I dreamt about it—kinda. My dreams came in flashes, most of which were long gone when I woke. But the sound of my mother’s voice, and a visage of a woman with long, white-blonde hair like mine, always remained when morning came.
“Do you want to meet your loved ones, Alice? The rebels who have been fighting to make the world you were born into a better place?”
“Rebels?” I said the word as if I’d never heard it before. “My family members are rebels?”
“Yes. Rebel leaders. They’re always in danger. Hence why they brought you here, to protect you—or at least try to protect you—from violence.” The rabbit was studying my face carefully, trying to find tells in the cool facade Xavier had trained into me.
Who was this rabbit kidding? Every orphan wished to find their family. Now that I had a partial answer as to why they left, and it was a good one, that wish had intensified.
I had a million questions they needed to answer. More than anything, I wanted to see them again, to have a chance to remember a bit of my past.
“I have her until her eighteenth birthday.” The gun twitched in the vampire’s hand. “And I have an important job planned.”
I looked at him incredulously. “I’m sorry?! You’ve been using me for nefarious purposes when you weren’t supposed to, and now you’re going to try to keep me here?”
Xavier’s eyes narrowed. “I may have stretched the truth, but you’re the one who signed to work for me. You made that choice.”
Fucking vampire. My fist clenched.
I’d been a child barely able to sign my name when he’d started training me. I’d seen how Xavier seemed to love the other assassins. How he treated them with respect. I’d wanted that too—wanted to belong.
But I wasn’t a child anymore, and I was done with this vampire.
I tossed my gun on the table, and placed a hand on my hip—sure that if he retaliated, I’d be able to hold my own. “And I’m making this choice to break my contract. I’m out, Xavier.”
“That gives me the right to hunt you,” the vampire growled, more pissed than I’d ever seen him.
“If you want to try to stop me, just remember,” I arched an eyebrow. “You taught me well, made our boundaries clear. We’re not family, this is business.” The vampire’s eyes widened as I threw his words back in his face. “If you come after me, I won’t hold back.”
“Hold back?! You owe me, Queenly. I fed you, housed you, and clothed you!”
My lips pressed together. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to stick a stake in Xavier, but of course, he didn’t keep stakes in his apartment. Or silver, or anything deadly to him. And I didn’t have my dagger, so decapitation was out.
He isn’t worth it, anyway.
“And I killed for you. Actually, consider me not killing you the rest of my repayment.” I turned to walk toward the door.
I whipped back around to face the man who raised me. “No! How dare you lie to me about my parents and tell me I should be grateful!’ I thrust a finger at him. “You’d better watch yourself from now on. When I get back, we’re going to have words.”
The vampire stared into my eyes for a few long, dangerous, seconds before replying.
“Fine. You’re released from your contract. But you should know, Alice, I raised you the best way I knew how.” Xavier glanced at the pooka, his lips pursed in frustration at having lost his best assassin and cash cow. “No doubt where you’re going, your training will come in handy.”
“Whatever. Do me a favor, and stay out of my life.” I strode toward the door. “Come on, pooka. Show me the way to Wonderland.”
The pooka transformed into a mini-poodle wearing a blue sweater. I cradled him in my arms as we strolled past the security guard, and into the wilds of L.A.
More people crowded the sidewalks now. Two speed walking grannies dressed in sweats straight out of the eighties and carrying one pound weights stopped us before we got very far. They wanted to pet the poodle, and I couldn’t say no, so I was forced to make small talk until the old biddies moved on.
Finally, we reached the park I’d pulled him into earlier. I set him down and began wiping off a few strands of white fur that clung to my black shirt and leggings.
“That was so embarrassing. Don’t think I’m ever doing that again,” I said, looking at the poodle’s ridiculous poofs. “I’m much more of a cat person. They’re less needy. A pittie would work too. Fewer people approach you when you’re with one of them.”
The poodle transformed back into a rabbit, and rolled his eyes, which cut through my annoyance and made me giggle.
Who thought they’d ever see a rabbit roll its eyes at them?
“Follow me, Miss Queenly.”
Rabbit began hopping down a path. After a few minutes, the stretch of grass gave way, and we were in a manicured garden dotted with cedars.
“Are we looking for a door, or what?” I asked.
Unless they were demi-fae like me, most people in our realm weren’t allowed to enter Faerie. And even if you were demi-fae, you had to have an excellent reason to enter the other realm. Familial obligations counted, but I could have never claimed that before. One of the other valid reasons was a job that sent you from one world to the other.
“Of a sort.” Rabbit shook his head. “Xavier truly failed us. How is it you know so little about Faerie?”
Beats me. I didn’t even know that I was born there.
Oh my God!
The pooka twisted. “My name is Herald.”
“So sorry I didn’t intuit that.”
Rabbit—Herald—scowled. “You had a question?”
“If I was born in Faerie, that means I’m full-fae, right? Not demi-fae?”
“Of course. To be exact, you’re a pure blood faerie, the fae race our realm is named after.”
I stopped in my tracks.
Herald said it like it was nothing. But to me, it was massive. All my life, I’d believed I was a mixed race demi-fae without a family. When really, I was the daughter of full-blooded rebel faeries.
WTF . . . mind blown.
The rabbit didn’t seem to notice my revelation, and kept hopping down the path until he stopped in front of a tree with a wide trunk.
Herald smiled. “Ah! The witch stayed true to her word.”
“We’re here?” I glanced about but didn’t see a single thing that looked like a door or a portal.
Herald ignored the sign instructing people to stay out of the garden surrounding the tree, and hopped over the flowers and toward the trunk. He placed his paw on a woody knot, and a hole slightly smaller than a manhole cover popped open.
I blinked as a bright light flooded out of the tree.
My mouth fell open. “A witch did that?”
“With a fae. Portal magic is complex, and the best way we’ve found to keep them open is to have two magicals work their powers on opposing sides and blend them. Of course, permanent Faerie holes look nothing like this, but we’re working under the radar.”
“Will this disappear later?”
“Absolutely. Once we pass through, I’ll instruct the fae whose magic kept it open to end the enchantment. If we keep it open, one of the queen’s men might find it.”
Something dinged in his pocket, and an alarmed expression came over his face. “Oberon’s ears! Heads will roll! Come, Alice!”
With that, Herald leapt into the hole and disappeared from sight.
I stuck my head in the hole and peered down after him. Only darkness stared back, making me gulp.
The dark didn’t scare me. I’d learned to use it to my advantage, to be one with it.
But the unknown? That scared me.
It would be easier to stay here, go on another job, maybe two if the vamp insisted, and soon enough be free of Xavier. Free to do whatever I wanted, with no obligations to anyone or anything. That way, no one could ever hurt me again.
But another opposing dream stared me in the face. My family. Fae who only put me in Xavier’s hands to protect me.
I had to meet them.
I shoved myself through the hole.
Blackness swirled around me as I plunged. Air whipped through my white-blonde hair, and goosebumps charged over my skin. My hands flailed out, trying to grab onto something, a rock to slow the momentum, a root, anything.
Nothing popped up.
That is, until my right shoulder slammed into something hard, and the sound of an instrument—a piano?—hit my ears.
I released a gasp, and at that very instant, light beamed through the darkness as if someone had turned on a light switch.
A trumpet flew past me, followed by a teapot leaving a trail of teacups swirling through the air in a circular motion. Flags, balloons, and playing cards adorned the walls of the tunnel like photos.
I shook my head as another barrage of objects soared past, this time a hookah with a stuffed dog attached, apparently smoking.
Whoever created this portal must have been on drugs. Or maybe—oh shit!
The floor came in sight, and I realized I was going way too fast if I wanted to land and live. I didn’t see any Herald-splatter below, but that didn’t give me hope. The pooka could’ve easily changed from a rabbit to a bug or something with wings. But I didn’t have that option. As always, my wings were strapped to my back.
I reached for my powers of air and brought a gale of wind up under me, fighting against gravity. It wouldn’t be enough to save me from hitting the ground, but it slowed my fall a little.
As the floor came at me, I braced for impact, closing my eyes and hoping that I’d escape broken bones.
I landed with an oomph, and bounced up and back down softly. My eyes snapped open and I looked down to see what I’d landed on.
“What the hell?”
A massive cushion that hadn’t been there a moment ago sat beneath me. Next to it was a small table; another object I hadn’t spotted. Placed upon the table lay a wee bottle of purple beverage, and a single-bite teacake.
Well, that’s weird.
I glanced around, taking in the room. It was twenty feet in diameter, and circular. Ten feet above my head, small windows peppered the wall to allow in light and fresh air. A single door stood facing me, no larger than a mouse hole.
Herald was nowhere to be seen. He must have transformed and exited through the door, forgetting in his time-obsessed haste that I had no damned idea where I was going.
“Wonderful.” I shoved myself up off the cushion.
I circled the room, keeping an eye out for an alternate exit. On my third sweep, I had to admit that things looked bad. As far as I could tell, there was only one way out, and there was no way in hell I was squeezing my hips through it.
I knelt on the ground and tried to twist the tiny knob. And wouldn’t you know it, that sucker wasn’t only too small to fit through, it was locked.
“How does he expect me to get out of here?”
I scanned the room again, and when my eyes landed on the table, I jerked back.
Something had changed.
Now, a small, gold key gleamed up at me from between the tiny bottle and teacake.
I tilted my head and made my way to the table.
The key wasn’t the only thing that had changed. The bottle now bore a label I was positive hadn’t been there before, and words had appeared on the top of the teacake.
I picked up the bite-sized dessert and read it. “Eat me?”
My attention went to the bottle’s label. “Drink me?”
I uncorked the bottle and sniffed. It didn’t smell of any poison that I knew of, but that probably didn’t mean much. I was in Faerie, poisons could be totally different here.
I moved on to the key. It wasn’t labeled, because duh, it was a key, but this time, I noted its positioning, right between the cake and the bottle. The cake and the drink were probably tools to help get me out of the room.
“Should I try one first? Or both at once?”
The liquid in the bottle suddenly glowed.
I picked it up. “I can take a hint. Bottoms up.”
I tilted the bottle back and took a sip. Right away, my insides contorted, and a sense of being wrapped in saran wrap came over me. It was uncomfortable, the most constricting sensation I’d ever experienced.
And then, suddenly, I began to shrink.
“Holy shit!” I screamed.
I blinked and lost three inches, and it was only a breath later that five feet seemed like a dream. After thirty seconds, I was no taller than the table, and by the end of a full minute, I was toddler sized.
My heart rate thundered as everything in the room got progressively larger. When is this ever going to end?
Finally, I stopped shrinking when I was about four inches high. The bottle I held was now as tall as me, and the weight of it nearly knocked me over.
I scrambled to right it, spilling a little in the process. Once I found my feet, I blinked, taking in my new world.
I nearly winked out of existence!
Shaking off my nerves, I strode over to the door, and turned the knob to exit the room.
The handle clicked to a stop, and my stomach sank as my stupidity set in.
I’d left the key on the table. The table which, at my diminutive size, now resembled a mountain.
“This is fucking delightful,” I grumbled, stomping back to the table and examining the legs.
After a brief study, I concluded that I could probably climb them. The issue would be getting atop the surface of the table. I scratched my head, unsure the maneuver would even be possible.
“Knew they should’ve sent me,” a high-pitched and prideful voice shot through me.
I whirled around, but found no one.
“Or both of us,” a second voice said. “I’d have loved to help.”
“Oh, please, Dum! You know I would have been perfect for the job. I’m much more of a go-getter than you or that stupid pooka. He transformed into a fly and forgot her here! Probably worried about being on time again, the fool.”
Well, that answered the question of how Herald got out of the room.
“And you seem set on confusing the heck out of the poor thing,” the other voice, Dum, retorted. “Alice! Look up!”
My eyes drifted upward, which was a great deal farther than it had been minutes ago, and widened when I found two pixies sitting on a windowsill.
“Oh, hi.” I blinked up at them.
“Hello. I’m Tweedle Dee, that’s two words, if you please!” The pixie with short, red hair and a matching dress stood and curtsied as she introduced herself.
“And I’m her twin sister, Dumtalora.” The pixie with blue hair down to her tiny butt, and a dress to match, threw me a wave.
“Hi, Tweedle Dee and Dumtalora.” I said the names slowly, hoping they were some kind of joke.
“Oh, you can call us Dee and Dum,” Dumtalora said quickly. “Obviously, our names are a bit of a mouthful for you.”
Now someone named Dum thinks I’m slow? Oh, the irony.
“You two wouldn’t be able to help me out here, would you?”
The pixies slipped off the window ledge. Their retracted wings popped out, and they fluttered in midair.
“We can help you get the key.”
Embarrassment crashed over me. Why hadn’t I just unstrapped my wings?
Some faerie I am . . .
“Yeah, that would be great.”
They beamed at me before landing next to the key. After a scuffle over who would hold it, they discovered that it was too heavy for one pixie anyhow, and shared the burden.
A minute later, they landed in front of me and dropped the key.
“Oh my! We need to exercise more!” Dum clutched her side and bent over as if she’d run a marathon.
“For once, I totally agree.” Dee fanned the back of her neck with her red mane.
“Thanks.” I lifted the key effortlessly, which told me that despite our sizes being equal, the pixies were kinda weak. “Now, time to get outta here!”
I slung the key over my shoulder and spun toward the door.
“Hold on!” A shriek came from behind me, stopping my heart before I’d even taken two steps.
“What?!” I twisted around, thinking maybe one of them had had a heart attack from exertion. “What happened?”
Dee shoved Dum. “Nothing. She’s just being dramatic.” The red-haired pixie rolled her eyes and lifted off the floor.
I watched as she soared up to the tabletop, grabbed the teacake, and floated to me. She handed me the cake, and suddenly my hands were very, very full.
“She didn’t want you to forget this.”
“What does it do?”
“Returns you to your normal height,” Dee explained. “Obviously, you can live a fine life at our size. Heck, I have a date with an elf later this week. He doesn’t mind at all that I’m small. Especially when I—”
“Thanks!” I shouted over her. “I appreciate the help, but I should be going.”
I strode over to the door, intent on getting out of there, nibbling on the cake, and finding Herald again so he could take me where I needed to go.
I had to set the cake down to maneuver the key in the lock, but eventually I got it, and the lock clicked open. I dropped the key, picked up the cake, and marched through the door.
As soon as I stepped foot on the other side of the portal, I gasped.
This place burst with color and life and scents and sounds unlike anything I’d ever seen.
“Not many people enter Wonderland Court anymore.”
I twisted to see Dee soar through the small door, and blinked.
In my world, I’d entered a tree, but in Faerie, I’d exited out of a tower at least ten stories tall. The contradiction confused me, but considering all the crazy stuff I’d passed on my way down the rabbit hole, I decided I needed to roll with it.
“But when they do, they always have that reaction,” Dee finished, landing beside me.
A second later, Dum followed.
“I bet. In my world, trees are generally only green, or orange and red in autumn. But they’re definitely never pink or blue or purple,” I told them, taking in the assortment of vegetation in front of me. “And those sounds . . . what am I hearing?”
It sounded like a cross between a cat’s yowl and a dog’s bark. Totally alien to my ear.
“That’s a bandersnatch,” Dum said. “There are only a few left in the wild. You’re lucky to hear one. They rarely make noises because they don’t want to be captured.”
“Well, I guess I’d better grow.” I was ready to be back to my normal size and leave the pixies behind.
Keeping in mind how little of the liquid I’d drank and how small it had made me, I took only a tiny nibble of the teacake.
The reaction was instantaneous. My bones extended and thickened by the millisecond as I shot up.
When I stopped growing, I looked around. Everything seemed normal, like it had been before I drank the purple liquid.
Actually, I might’ve gained an inch or two. Go me. I grinned.
Now back to normal height, I noticed a path leading into the woods away from the tower, and made my way over to it. I’d just entered the woods when I felt the slightest weight land on each of my shoulders.
Oh no, this is not happening.
“What are you doing?” I asked Dee and Dum, both of whom were positioning themselves so they could ride with their legs comfortably dangling down the sides of my arms.
“Coming with you,” Dee replied.
“Yeah, except I work alone so . . .”
I didn’t finish before she started laughing. “Oh, right. There was talk that you’d insist on that, considering what you’ve become.”
“And what’s that?” My stomach tightened defensively.
I didn’t want people to gossip about my occupation. Or tell my family before I met them.
“A warrior. One not scared to take back what we need.” Dee crossed her arms over her chest and gave me an impressed look.
All of a sudden, I felt more friendly toward her. Being called a warrior was better, more socially acceptable, than being called an assassin. Still, I didn’t want them tagging along.
“Okay, well, the rumor mill was right. This warrior works alone. So hop off, pixies.”
“If we do, how are you going to find those you seek?” Dum chimed in.
A group of gryphons charged through the forest in front of us. My mouth fell open as I watched the beasts, part eagle and part lion, run gracefully through the forest. Their scent, earthy, a bit like petrichor, as if they’d just been flying through a storm, and also something unnamable—at least to me—filled my nostrils.
The pixies were right. I was out of my depth.
The phone in my pocket wouldn’t work, or help me navigate. I knew I was in Wonderland Court, but not where that court was in Faerie. I didn’t even know if the stars were the same here. Or the cardinal directions.
And come to think of it, now that I was in Faerie, shouldn’t I be getting sick? Most people who visited Faerie from my world became ill—like they were severely drunk.
“Why don’t I feel funny? Like drunk?”
Dum gave me an understanding smile. “You were born here, Alice. Even if you haven’t been back in a while, Faerie is in your blood.”
“Theoretically, anyhow,” Dee said sassily.
I glared at her, but couldn’t retort, because the little shit was right. I didn’t feel at home here. “Fine. You can come with me. But only until I find Herald, and he introduces me to my family.”
The pixies exchanged a glance before Dee held out her tiny hand.
I lifted my big one to hers, and she grabbed the tip of my finger to shake.
“We’re in this together!” she beamed. “And now that you’ve agreed, I should tell you that you’re going the wrong way.”