Heir of Storm – D.D. Miers, Graceley Knox

AS MILLICENT WRAPPED the leather thongs around my wrists, I couldn’t help but notice that the leather was a hundred times softer than it had been before my first duel. Three weeks into my first visit to Fairy, I had gotten into the routine of waking up, having an indescribably good cup of fae-brewed coffee, and having a duel before my daily etiquette lesson and lunch. “Who is it this time, Millie?” I sighed, sucking in a second breath and pushing it out until my lungs were completely empty. She pulled the laces of the thick leather corset tight and knotted the ends of the stays together before I inhaled again. We’d learned quickly that the initial discomfort was worth it when she’d tied it too loose, and an ambitious courtier had gotten her knife between it and my ribcage, slicing me deeply before I stabbed her in the arm to force her back. “Her name is Celestine, Majesty,” Millie chirped pleasantly as she added the mail shirt over the corset. Calling it mail could never do it justice, though. The weave of the silver cloth was tight and fine, as soft as silk where it brushed against my skin, and just as light. “Is she offended by some decree of my father’s, or just mad that I exist?” I knew I sounded self-pitying, but I didn’t care, and Millie the cave troll didn’t seem to mind. When she didn’t answer, I glanced up at her in the shadowy glass of the mirror. “Oh, Majesty… I…” she stammered until I laughed. “Now I need to know, Mill.” She giggled and blushed, her pale grey skin pinking up like the sky before sunrise. “Millie,” I gasped. “You are really very pretty, you know that?” Her blush deepened as she ducked her head.

“You’d best not say that in front of any of the other nobles, Miss. They think anything less than pure high fae is revolting.” I snorted rudely and rolled my eyes at my reflection. “No, that’s just what they say in their sewing circles, as their maids clean up the mess they made, bouncing perfectly attractive lesser fae in their beds.” Millicent gasped but didn’t argue, which would have been pointless. Halflings like Penelope and me lived all over the world, some never even knowing they had fae blood, all because of those dalliances the high fae pretended didn’t happen. “Well, Celestine believes she can give your father a full-blooded royal son to inherit his throne.” I tapped one of my knives on the footboard of my bed as she laced up the backs of the thigh-high boots. I liked them the most, even though they weren’t the most flattering things I’d ever worn on my legs. They came up to my crotch at the front, flaring out slightly over the knees to shield my thighs with stiffer leather, and hugging my calves tight.

They’d felt strange to wear at first, but after stopping a young fae male (who I was sure was fighting me on a dare) from slicing my femoral artery, I’d learned to appreciate the extra bulk. Like everything else that had allowed me to survive running the gauntlet since I’d arrived, I learned to function better with it than I ever had without. “I wish these nobles would get it through their heads that I couldn’t care less about being a queen,” I muttered, adjusting the long shirt sleeves over my wrist sheaths. I carried a knife on each arm, one in the top of my right boot, and a needle-point dagger in my hair. To her credit, Millie certainly did everything in her power to make sure I was ready to fight and win. I didn’t ask if she cared about who won. I liked her enough that it would’ve stung for her to remind me that all fae nobles were the same to her, even though she’d said it enough times in private to me when she forgot that’s exactly what I was. “Are you ready Majesty?” “Millie, for the thousandth time, it’s just Morgan.” “Oh, I know, I’m just afraid I’ll forget when we’re not alone, Miss.” I patted her hand and twirled for her and my reflection.

“It terrifies me to know that I’m getting so that wearing this is more comfortable than my own clothes.” She smiled sympathetically. “All right then. Let’s get this over with. Cook promised me a giant human-style quiche for brunch, and I’m starving.” Even the ceremony that preceded each duel had become abbreviated, and fewer nobles attended as time progressed. I wasn’t sure if I should be heartened that people finally realized how stupid it was, or worried that the people who were missing, were the ones who had cared if I lived. Tiberius, the master of ceremonies, gave me the chalice of mortality, an empty gesture on my part, but when Celestine drank hers, I gave thanks to the Goddess as I watched her weaken and the glow fade from her skin. I had managed not to kill anyone yet, but I sure as hell wanted the chance to do as much damage to them as they could to me. It also knocked them out of rematches, as the healers’ quarter was quickly filling with fae who healed like humans.

Celestine turned to me with a scowl, curling her lip over delicately pointed teeth. I ran my tongue over my own canines, wondering if the fae I was about to fight was a kitsune like me. While I was of Celtic fae origins, there was no Gaelic term for ‘fox fairy.’ With my pointed ears, fine features, and sharp canines, I did look foxlike. But I could also call lightning, and that was a kitsune power as well. So I kept the lesser fae label, even though announcing I was lesser fae could end the ‘is she really a princess’ debate forever. I wish it would. “I choose magic,” my opponent called out, and I chuckled and shrugged, shaking my head. “You challenged, Celestine, I get to choose,” I reminded her before Tiberius could. “I choose knives.

” I hadn’t tried to use magic in the mound yet after Tryst had warned me that if the mound did not accept me, it would use my magic against me to kill me. She glared at me, and I made a tick mark on the Morgan side of my mental tally sheet. I figured that was at least part of the reason my challengers kept trying to claim the right to use magic, a hope that the mound would do the work for them and prove them right at the same time. Not today, Satan… or Celestine, as it were. I smirked at my own mental quip, but the flash of anger on her face told me she thought I was mocking her. Oh, great, just what I needed. For her to make it even more personal. I pushed away my thoughts and emptied my mind of anything but the fight ahead. Even without her magic and from her pretty, unscarred armor, her complete lack of fighting experience, I couldn’t let my guard down. I’m strong, crazy strong for a mortal.

I can turn a small car over if I want to. But a regular old, run of the mill, full-blood fae can pick up the damn thing over their head and throw it. So pretty and inexperienced or not, I wasn’t about to get within arms’ reach unless I was ready to cause her real damage. I accepted the stained brown leather vest Millicent offered me from the side of the arena. It made it even more difficult to stab me through the heart but left my shoulders and arms less protected than a full leather jerkin would. It made my silver-clad arms the more attractive targets. Survival, as always, was key. Tiberius cleared his throat and what little murmuring was coming from the pillowed seats in the stand immediately silenced. “Third blood wins, or to the death.” Millicent had explained to me that no one fought to the death anymore, but adding the caveat kept opponents from being charged with murder, because even among the fae, sometimes things happened.

Today, it would mean a slit throat or a difficult shot beneath the arm through the opening in the vest. I hadn’t killed a fae yet, but I fought every duel like it was to the death, because I had to assume my opponent wanted me dead, not humiliated. In other words, I’d never felt more at home. Tiberius left the chalk outline on the stone that indicated the fighting circle and the wisps scattered from the center to the edges, and Celestine stalked towards me. I sort of missed the bell that would sound at the beginning of matches and blurted without thinking. “Tiberius, you really need a bell, you know? Gives the fight a little something.” Celestine paused in her advance, glancing at the old fae in confusion. “Are you not ready to begin?” “Well, now that you ask, no, I’m really not. I haven’t had breakfast, I was up all night studying ancient Gaelic, and frankly, these duels keep me so busy, I haven’t had the time to see the underground gardens or the mermaid grotto.” She gaped at me, and I sighed.

“Yes, Celestine, I can fight, since you want to so badly. But I must admit, I tire of violence, when all I came here for, was to learn how not to hurt people with my magic.” She looked around at our audience, and I followed her gaze. Several of the spectators whispered to each other behind their hands or their folding fans, and her cheeks flushed. She glanced at me, and I saw a flash of intent a moment before she whirled, a knife appearing in her hand in the blink of an eye. Shit. No matter how many times I caught the edge of their glamor, it still made my heart race. I managed to get my wrist up in time to block the first blow, grateful for the leather thong that we’d wrapped around it. I countered by pulling both blades from my wrist sheaths and using my lower center of gravity to my advantage. I bent my knees and slashed at her stomach, driving her back, then advanced and leg swept her.

Celestine fell on her ass with a shocked look on her face, but before I could capitalize, she was back on her feet and slashing wildly at me. I fell back and rolled over, righting myself and rising my right arm to block her just as she swept her blade down. I felt the plate inside the leather shatter as the leather fell away from my arm. Double shit. The bitch was cheating. Her blade hadn’t been bespelled when she first attacked. I risked a glance around the room to see if anyone else could have done it, and almost tripped without any help at all from her. Up in the corner of the room, my Unseelie cousin, Fortunato, wriggled his fingers at me in greeting. “You know that son of a bitch is helping you, but you’re not going to do the right thing, are you Celestine?” I said it low enough that even the fae with super hearing couldn’t overhear us. “Who do you think promised me a throne if I killed you?” Her pretty face twisted in desperate ambition.

“I always wondered what that girl looked like.” I backed a few steps away and winked at Fortunato, who grinned and licked his lips. It caused the bile to rise in my throat, but apparently, the fae didn’t have the same ideas about kissing cousins as the human world. Fortunato’s ego was so overwhelming he could simultaneously consider my imminent murder and the possibility of screwing me. Perfect, just perfect. “What girl?” She moved to block my view of my cousin, her six foot-foot height just another advantage I planned to turn into a weakness. “The stupid, desperate social-ladder climber that thinks she has a chance in hell with the Unseelie prince, Celestine.” I smiled, putting as much saccharine into my voice as I could. “Haven’t you noticed all his guards are short and curvy, like me?” She snarled and circled me, but her eyes kept flicking to him. Her inexperience was more evident with every step she took.

Once upon a time, she might have been a decent fighter. I imagined her a footman in the armies that swept across Europe hundreds of years before humans realized they were not vanquishing gods and learned how to fight back. But I was part human, and I knew how to fight against a fae suffering from a lack of respect for the ancient art of the duel. I slipped my hand into my corset, and the steel ring I’d hidden there slid over my finger. In one smooth movement, I cocked my fist and slammed it into her arm. The steel wasn’t enough to really hurt her, but the jolt threw her off balance enough that I managed to knock the knife out of her hand. A series of quick jabs, a roundhouse, and she was backing away, her eyes wide with shock. I suppose she thought she was the only fae to think of cheating, and she’d thought she was sure to win with Fortunato’s blessing. I swept her leg and dropped her on her back. In an instant, I straddled her, my knife to her throat in a submission move.

“This is where you tap out, or I cut you, darlin’,” I reminded her. “I get three strikes, and you haven’t even drawn blood yet.” “I yield,” she gasped, her eyes so wide my own felt dry in sympathy. “Good choice,” I whispered. “You really are too pretty to be fighting.” I glanced up to Fortunato, but as I expected, he’d left, probably the moment he knew I’d win. “That’s what everyone said about you,” Celestine interrupted my thoughts. I glanced down at her. “Pardon?” “Everyone said you couldn’t win a duel without your father’s aid. That you were too… fragile.

” I scooted off her and laughed aloud. “Oh lordy, you fae really have no idea where I’ve been, do you?” I swiped at the uncharacteristic tears that burned my eyelids. “Put the word out to your friends, Celestine. I have survived since childhood among those who want me dead a lot more than you do. You are my last mercy. From now on, I will finish every duel, there will be no yielding.” I stood and marched out of the ring with Millie chasing after me, picking up my gear as I dropped it on the stone floor. I reached my father’s door before my stomach reminded me I had started the day with another order of priorities. “Go in, Lady. I’ll bring you human coffee and food.

You will need to keep your strength.” Millie touched my arm. “He did wish to see you, you aren’t disturbing him.” I didn’t bother to tell her that ‘disturbing’ my father was the least of my concerns. Since my arrival, I’d been in three duels a day, some days. Yet I had hardly had five minutes with the one reason I had for being there in the first place. “Daughter.” He sounded as stern as he looked. “You have been fighting again.” He made it sound like I had picked a fight out in the schoolyard and he’d just spoken with the principal.

Having been in hundreds of battles over my upbringing among the witches who feared and hated my existence, I knew the tone well. “You sound disappointed, Father. Is it because I’m being forced to fight, or because I won again?” I draped myself over the throne he had told me was mine, a step lower than his and to his right. My cousin, when he was in court, sat in its twin to the king’s left. “I simply wish it was over with. You are capable and strong, and I don’t believe you will ever lose.” “Then put an end to it. Name an heir, a nice, Seelie looking full-blood fae, and remove the temptation. Because I am done giving mercy to would-be assassins who we both know wouldn’t do the same for me.” TWO “YOUR CAT WAITS for you outside, Morgana.

Go to him, calm down, and return when you have remembered your diplomacy.” “Thanks, Dad.” I scoffed as I unfolded myself and started down the stairs away from him. “It’s always good to know that while you were never there for me, no matter how many times my aunt almost murdered me, that you’ll be just as unconcerned with my survival in your own house.” I stormed out, and he knew better than to call me back. It was really a variation of every talk we’d had since my arrival, and he knew I wouldn’t turn back, just as I knew he wouldn’t admit he wanted me to leave. Why I hadn’t left, was beyond me. I only knew I had to conquer it, walk through Fairy using my magic, accepted by the wild magic that protected the fae within. Until I stopped being a coward and just let my magic out, I would never know if I was fae enough. I didn’t care about the duels.

I would fight them every day forever if I had to. But if I wasn’t fae enough to use magic in Fairy, then my death would prove everyone around me right, and I couldn’t let that happen. Just as he said, Grayson was waiting outside the manor door. The entrance to Fairy, circa the twentieth century, had reformed itself into a mansion, complete with gardens and paths and a pond full of fish that sometimes-looked like koi, but sometimes appeared as trout, their silver scales flashing in the sun. “Hey, I survived my dual this morning, are you excited to see me?” I chuckled as I joined him on the steps. He looked out over the circular gravel apron where the only car parked was his rented SUV. “Penelope’s in Helena talking to some people Orson has helped before. You guys were right not to head to the East Coast. He was sighted in Butte and then in Idaho. Orson’s sure he’s coming back this way again.

” I stretched and sighed. “Thank the Goddess, my opponent, this morning was not a fighter.” “Someone who can’t fight challenged you to a duel?” I nodded as he rubbed the small of my back until I started making helpless happy noises. “My cousin bespelled a blade for her. He probably told her it could miss or some nonsense. When I knocked it out of her hand, she about wet herself.” Grayson’s hand stopped moving, and I cracked an eyelid to stare up at him sideways. “What?” He made the face that told me he was counting to ten. I tend to have that effect on people, so I waited for him to continue without speaking. “Your cousin is trying to kill you, and that’s all you have to say?” “If he really wanted me dead, I’m sure he could have just used his magic.

Apparently, he has the ability to bring back old wounds from battle. Can you even imagine what that would do to me?” “That’s why he’s encouraging the duels, so he has more wounds to pull from,” Grayson gasped, and I pressed my finger to the end of my nose. “Nailed it.” “The sooner you are finished here, and we can get you home, the better I’ll feel. “He took my hand, and I let him, but his words rankled. I understood that my power made the pack stronger, but the more time I spent with them, the less independence I had. “You know, I could’ve met you at the campsite.” “I couldn’t wait. If you hadn’t shown, I don’t know what I would’ve done.” I sighed and did a little ten-count of my own.

“If I hadn’t come out, what would you have done? The fae are known for letting humans rot outside the mound, never letting them in, remember?” He didn’t have a reply, and I added another win to my mental checklist. I hated that I was keeping score on so many fronts lately, but the petty part of me needed the reminder that I wasn’t crazy, and that sometimes, I was even right. Because no one around me wanted to admit it. The pack was spending the hottest part of summer in a yearly retreat. It was something that interested Grayson enough that when I told him I was coming back east to Montana to help Penelope with her skip, he jumped at the chance to come along. Of course, like the fiscally minded troll he is, Orson worked out a consulting fee in the process so he could claim all our travel expenses for his taxes. The campground was lovely, and there were even some cabins for use, mostly by those with young families and the very elderly that weren’t into sleeping in tents anymore. But the Montana alpha, a giant of a man named Carl Dunston, had given Grayson use of a cabin that slept four and had running water, so even Penelope couldn’t complain. Carl was waiting for us when we arrived at the camp, too, as he had been every other trip. I knew he had guards posted, especially since the skip we were chasing was a former member of the pack, but I hadn’t figured out how they communicated yet, since I hadn’t heard any howling, and my cell phone had no bars since we left the highway and turned down the utility road to the backside of the camp.

“You did it again, Carl,” I laughed as he opened my door for me. I’d tried to stop him, but he’d just chewed out Grayson for not teaching me to accept chivalry. They were oldfashioned, but I liked Carl and Sheryl immediately. They didn’t rule their pack by force, but by vote. They were the most democratic pack in the country, and Grayson wanted to know if it was a system that would work on a pack as diverse as ours. Carl and Sheryl’s pack was mostly wolves, but they had shifters I’d never seen before, including a mated pair of black swans and an honest-to-god Leo, who in his human form was a quiet, bookish guy with naturally golden skin, hair, and eyes. He’d taken one look at Penelope in her leather and lace gear and had practically run to his cabin. I hoped to see him again, his kind were relatively rare in North America, and it was strange to see him in the middle of the woods in Montana. Both because of the animal I saw lurking beneath his skin, and because he looked like the stereotypical city professor lost in the woods. Penelope’s ring tone chirped the old song.

“Barbie Girl” from my pocket and I picked up before anyone else heard it. “What’s up, Pen?” “I got a call from my guy in Pocatello. Farley’s been bouncing back and forth between his cousin’s farm and an old girlfriend in Butte.”

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