Ink Exchange – Melissa Marr

The past year plus has seen Wicked Lovely (my first book) go from revision to being on shelves —and Ink Exchange go from concept to completion. This was daunting, but the warm encouragement I’ve received has made it possible. To everyone at HarperCollins US and HarperCollins UK; to my publishers abroad (especially Franziska at Carlsen in Germany); to librarians, booksellers, readers, parents, journalists, teachers, and the folks at the fansite (especially Maria); to my amazing financial manager, Peggy Hileman; and to the innumerable others I’ve met online and in person: I’ve been humbled by your kindness and support. Thank you, all. Special thanks go to Clare Dunkle, who has touched my heart first with her novels and then in the past year with her wisdom. It’s been a privilege. My agent, Rachel Vater, makes chaos look like order. Whether you’re talking me down, keeping me company as I wander, or flashing those pretty fangs, I am ever grateful. My two passionate editors, Anne Hoppe and NickLake, continue to exceed expectations. Your insights, notes, and hours of chatting have made the text clearer and closer to the ideals I strive to reach. Kelsey Defatte read the very earliest versions of this manuscript. Craig Thrush read through my conflict scenes. I am indebted to you both. And I am extremely indebted to Jeaniene Frost for hours of talking, revision letters to rival editors’ letters, and so many epiphany-stirring observations. Thanks, J.

My tattoo artist, Paul Roe, read the tattoo sequences and answered innumerable questions on the minutiae of the art and its history. For this, for decorating my skin, and for all the rest, you have been essential to me. Some rare people have given me their affection through years of chaos and calm—Dawn Kobel, Carly Chandler, Kelly Kincy, Rachael Morgan, Craig Thrush, and most of all, Cheryl and Dave Lafferty. Thank you for keeping me steady. Words can’t cover what you mean to me. None of the rest of this would’ve meant a thing if it weren’t for the people who enrich every aspect of my life— my parents, children, and spouse. I’m fairly certain I exist only because you are beside me. Prologue FALL Irial watched the girl stroll up the street: she was a bundle of terror and fury. He stayed in the shadows of the alley outside the tattoo parlor, but his gaze didn’t waver from her as he finished his cigarette. He stepped out just as she passed.

Her pulse beat too fast under her skin when she saw him. She straightened her shoulders—not fleeing or backing away, bold despite the shadows that clung to her—and motioned to his arm where his name and lineage were spelled out in an ogham inscription surrounded by spirals and knots that morphed into stylized hounds. “That’s gorgeous. Rabbit’s work?” He nodded and walked the remaining few steps to the tattoo parlor. The girl kept pace with him. “I’m thinking of getting something soon. I just don’t know what yet.” She looked defiant as she said this. When he didn’t reply, she added, “I’m Leslie.” “Irial.

” He watched her struggle and fail to find more words, to make him want to notice her. She was starving for something. If he took mortals for playthings, she’d be good fun, but he was here for business, not collecting trinkets, so he kept silent as he opened the door of Pins and Needles for her. Inside the tattoo shop, Leslie wandered away to talk to a dark-haired girl who was watching them warily. There were others in the shop, but only the dark-haired girl mattered. Because he’d made the curse that had bound summer so many centuries ago, Irial knew exactly who she was: the missing Summer Queen, the problem. She would change everything. And soon. Irial had felt it the moment Keenan had chosen her, had stolen her mortality. It was why Irial had come to Rabbit: change was coming.

Now that the Summer King would be unbound—and able to strike out at those who’d trapped him—true war was a possibility for the first time in centuries. Unfortunately, so was too much order. “Spare a moment, Rabbit?” Irial asked, but it was a formality more than a question. Rabbit might not be wholly fey, but he wouldn’t turn down the king of the Dark Court , not now, not ever. “Come on back,” Rabbit said. Irial trailed his hands over one of the steel-framed jewelry cabinets as he passed, well aware that Leslie’s attention was still on him. He closed the door and handed Rabbit the brown glass vials— blood and tears of the Dark Court . “I need the ink exchanges to work sooner than we’d planned. We’re out of time.” “The fey might”—Rabbit paused and rephrased it—”it could kill them, and the mortals aren’t recovering well.

” “So find a way to make it work. Now.” Irial tried a smile, softening his expression as he rarely did for the dark fey. Then he faded to invisibility and followed Rabbit back into the main room of the shop. Unhealthy curiosity made him pause beside Leslie. The others were gone, but she stood looking at the flash on the wall, lesser images than what Rabbit could draw on her skin given a chance. “Dream of me, Leslie,” Irial whispered, letting his wings wrap around them both, enclosing them. Maybe the girl would get strong enough to withstand an ink exchange with one of the chosen faeries. If not, he could always give her to one of the weaker fey. It seemed a shame to waste a lovely broken toy.

Chapter 1 EARLY THE FOLLOWING YEAR Leslie slipped into her school uniform and got ready as quickly as she could. She closed her bedroom door softly, staying quiet so she could get out of the house before her father woke. Being retired wasn’t good for him. He’d been a decent father before—before Mom left, before he’d fallen into a bottle, before he’d started taking trips to Atlantic City and gods knew where else. She headed to the kitchen, where she found her brother, Ren, at the table, pipe in hand. Wearing nothing but a pair of ratty jeans, his blond hair loose around his face, he seemed relaxed and friendly. Sometimes he even was. He looked up and offered a cherubic smile. “Want a hit?” She shook her head and opened the cupboard, looking for a tolerably clean cup. None.

She pulled a can of soda from the meat drawer in the fridge. After Ren had doped a bottle—and thereby doped her—she’d learned to drink only from still-sealed containers. Ren watched her, content in his chemical cloud, smiling in a perversely angelic way. When he was friendly and just smoking pot, it was a good day. Ren-on-Pot wasn’t a problem: pot just made him mellow. It was Ren-on-Anything-Else that was unpredictable. “There’s chips over there if you want some breakfast.” He pointed to a mostly empty bag of corn chips on the counter. “Thanks.” She grabbed a couple and opened the freezer to get the toaster waffles she’d hidden.

They were gone. She opened the cupboard and pulled out a box of the only type of cereal her brother didn’t eat—granola. It was nasty, but his pilfering stopped at the healthy stuff, so she stocked up on it. She poured her cereal. “No milk left,” Ren mumbled, eyes closed. Sighing softly, Leslie sat down with her bowl of dry granola. No fights. No troubles. Being home always made her feel like she was walking on a high wire, waiting for a gust of wind to knock her to the ground. The kitchen smelled strongly of weed.

She remembered when she used to wake up to the scent of eggs and bacon, when Dad would brew fresh coffee, when things were normal. It hadn’t been like that for more than a year. Ren plunked his bare feet on the kitchen table. It was covered with junk—news circulars, bills to pay, dirty dishes, and a mostly empty bottle of bourbon. While she ate, she opened the important bills—electric and water. With relief, she saw that Dad had actually paid ahead on both of them. He did that when he had a good run of luck at the tables or a few sober days: sent extra on the big bills so it wouldn’t be a hassle later. It didn’t help for groceries or the cable bill, which was overdue again, but she could usually cover those when she had to. Not this time, though. She’d finally decided to go through with it, to get a tattoo.

She’d been wanting one for a while but hadn’t felt ready. In the last few months, she’d become near obsessed with it. Waiting wasn’t the answer, not anymore. She thought about that act far too often—marking her body, reclaiming it as her own, a step she needed to take to make herself whole again. Now I just need to find the right image. With what she hoped was a friendly smile, she asked Ren, “Do you have any money for cable?” He shrugged. “Maybe. What’s it worth to you?” “I’m not bargaining. I just want to know if you can cover cable this month.” He took a long hit off his pipe and exhaled into her face.

“Not if you’re going to be a bitch about it. I have expenses. If you can’t do a guy a favor now and then, make nice with my friends”—he shrugged—”you pay it.” “You know what? I don’t need cable.” She walked over to the trash and dropped the bill in the can, fighting back the sickness in her throat at the mention of making nice with his friends, wishing that someone in her family cared about what happened to her. If Mom hadn ‘t taken of … But she had. She’d bailed and left Leslie behind to deal with her brother and father. “It’ll be better this way, baby,” she’d said. It wasn’t. Leslie wasn’t sure if she’d want to talk to her mom anymore—not that it mattered.

She had no contact information at all. Leslie shook her head. Thinking about that wouldn’t help her cope with her current reality. She started to walk past Ren, but he stood up and grabbed her for a hug. She was stiff in his arms. “What? Are you on the rag again?” He laughed, amused by his crass joke, amused by her anger. “Never mind, Ren. Just forget I—” “I’ll pay the bill. Relax.” He let go of her, and as soon as he let his arm drop, she stepped away, hoping the scent of pot and cigarettes wouldn’t cling to her too obviously.

Sometimes she suspected that Father Meyers knew exactly how much things had changed for her, but she still didn’t want to walk into school reeking. She put on her fake smile and murmured, “Thanks, Ren.” “I’ll take care of it. You just remember it next time I need you to come out with me. You’re a good distraction when I need credit.” He looked at her calculatingly. She didn’t reply. There wasn’t an answer that would help. If she said no, he’d be a prick, but she wasn’t saying yes. After what his druggie friends did—what h e let them do— she wasn’t going anywhere near them again.

Instead of rehashing that argument, she went and grabbed the bill out of the trash. “Thanks for taking care of it.” She handed it to him. Right now, it didn’t matter if he did it or not: she couldn’t pay the cable bill and get ink, and really, she didn’t watch cable enough to justify paying for it. Mostly, she paid it because she was embarrassed by the idea of anyone finding out that her family couldn’t pay a bill, as if by keeping it normal as long as possible maybe it’d get normal. It kept her from facing the inevitable pity and whispers if everyone found out how lame her father had become since Mom left, if they found out just how low her brother had gotten. By fall she’d be in college, escaped from here, away from them. Just like Mom did—escape. Sometimes she wondered if her mother had been escaping something she didn’t want Leslie to know about. If so, her mothers leaving made more sense—but her leaving Leslie behind made less sense.

It doesn’t matter. Leslie had already sent out her first-choice applications and applied for a bunch of scholarships. That’s what matters—getting a plan and getting out. Next year she’d be safe, in a new city, in a new life. But that didn’t stop the wave of terror she felt as Ren lifted his bourbon in a silent salute. Without another word, she grabbed her bag. “Catch you later, sis,” Ren called, before he turned his attention to packing another bowl. No. You won’t. By the time Leslie walked up the steps to BishopO’ConnellHigh School, her fears were safely tucked back in their box.

She’d gotten better at watching for the warning signs—the tense calls that meant Ren was in trouble again, the strangers in the house. She worked extra if there were too many warning signs. She’d put locks on her bedroom door. She didn’t drink out of open bottles. Her safeguards didn’t undo what was, but they helped avoid what could be. “Leslie! Hold up,” Aislinn called out from behind her. Leslie stopped and waited, schooling her face to be bland and calm, not that it mattered: Aislinn had been lost in her own world lately. A few months ago, she’d hooked up with the all-tooyummy Seth. They’d been practically dating anyhow, so that wasn’t so weird. What was weird was that Aislinn had simultaneously developed a very intense relationship with another guy, Keenan.

Somehow neither guy seemed to object to the other. The guys who’d walked Aislinn to school stood watching her from across the street while she caught up to Leslie. Keenan and Niall, his uncle, didn’t move from their post, seeming far too serious —and apparently oblivious to the number of people watching them like they were members of the Living Zombies. Leslie wondered if Niall played an instrument. He was sexier than any of the Zombies. If he played or sang too…he’d be halfway to success just by looking so delicious. He had a mysterious aura, plus he was a couple years older than Leslie and Aislinn—a college sophomore maybe. Add that oddly sexy responsibility thing—he was one of Keenan’s guardians, an uncle, but still young—and he seemed like a perfect package, one she was staring at again. When he smiled and waved, Leslie had to force herself not to go toward him. She always felt like that when he looked at her.

There was an illogical urge to run toward him, like something was coiled too tightly inside her and the only way to ease the tension was to go to him. She didn’t. She wasn’t about to make a fool of herself over a guy who hadn’t shown any genuine interest. Maybe he would, though. So far, their only contact had been under the watchful eye of Keenan or Aislinn, and that was usually interrupted by Aislinn’s flimsy excuses to go somewhere away from Niall. Aislinn put her hand on Leslie’s arm. “Come on.” And, like they had so often, they walked away from Niall. Leslie turned her attention to Aislinn. “Wow.

Rianne said you were crazy tan, but I didn’t believe it.” Aislinn’s perpetually pale skin was perfectly tan, as if she’d been living on a beach, as tan as Keenan always was. It hadn’t been that way on Friday. Aislinn bit down on her lip—a nervous habit that usually meant she was feeling cornered. “It’s some winter thing—SAD, they called it—so I needed to get some sunlight.” “Right.” Leslie tried to keep the doubt out of her voice and failed. Aislinn didn’t seem depressed at all—or to have reason to be depressed lately. In fact, she seemed like she’d become rather flush with money and attention. A few times when Leslie had seen her out with Keenan, both of them had been wearing matching twisted golden necklaces that fit snugly around their throats.

The clothes that Aislinn wore, the new winter coats, the chauffeurs, and—let’s not forget—Seth’s being cool with all of it. Depressed? Yeah, right. “Did you go over the reading for Lit?” Aislinn pulled open the door and they joined the throng of people in the halls. “We had a dinner thing out of town, so I didn’t finish.” Leslie gave an exaggerated eye roll. “Ren even dressed with all the required pieces of clothing.” They both continued to steer the conversation away from topics they didn’t want to address. Leslie lied easily, but Aislinn seemed determined to direct the conversation toward neutral subjects. Eventually, she glanced behind her—as if there were someone there—and made another random topic switch: “Are you still working over at Verlaine’s?” Leslie looked: there wasn’t anyone there. “Sure.

It drives Dad mad that I wait tables, and you know, gives me a good excuse if I need to explain my weird hours.” Leslie didn’t admit that she had to work or that her father didn’t have a clue what she did for money. She wasn’t sure her father knew she had a job or that she paid the bills. He might have thought Ren was doing it, although he probably didn’t realize Ren was dealing—or selling me—to get his money. Talking about money, home, and Ren was so not the sort of conversation she wanted to have, so she took a turn shifting the topic. With a conspiratorial grin, she looped her arm around Aislinn’s waist and assumed the façade she adopted with her friends. “So, let’s talk about Keenan’s sexy uncle. What’s the scoop on him? Is he seeing anyone?” “Niall? He’s just…he’s not, but…” Aislinn frowned. “You don’t want to mess with him. There’s prettier … I mean, better …” “I doubt that, sweetie.

Your vision’s clouded by staring at Seth too long.” Leslie patted Aislinn’s arm. “Niall’s top shelf.” His face was as beautiful as Keenan’s but in a different way: Niall’s had character. One long scar ran from his temple to the corner of his mouth, and he wasn’t shy about it. His hair was cut so short that there was no chance of anything detracting from the beauty of that jagged line. And his body…wow. He was all sinew and length, moving like he had been training in some long-lost martial art since birth. Leslie couldn’t figure why anyone would notice Keenan when Niall was around. Keenan was attractive enough, with his unnatural green eyes, perfect body, and sandy-blond hair.

He was gorgeous, but he moved in a way that always made Leslie think he wasn’t quite meant for civilization. He frightened her. Niall, on the other hand, was luscious and seemed sweet—kind in a way that Keenan wasn’t. Leslie prompted, “So relationships…” “He doesn’t, umm, do relationships.” Aislinn spoke softly. “Anyhow, he’s too old.” Leslie let it drop for the moment. Although Aislinn was spending much of her time “not-dating” Keenan, she kept her school friends separate from Keenan’s crowd as much as possible. When they did intersect, Aislinn clung to Leslie like an extra limb, giving no opportunities for Leslie to have conversations with anyone who hung around Keenan— • most especially Niall. For a moment, Leslie wondered if she’d be so intrigued by Niall if it weren’t for Aislinn’s playing keep-away.

The more Aislinn acted as an obstacle, the more Leslie wanted nearer Niall. An older guy with a drool-worthy body and seemingly no bad habits to speak of and somehow forbidden: how could that not be appealing? But Aislinn’s plate was overfilled with Seth and Keenan, so maybe she just wasn’t getting it. Or maybe she knows something. Leslie forced that thought away: if Aislinn had a legitimate reason to think Niall was bad news, she’d say something. They might be in the middle of this weird dance of secrecy, but they were still friends. “Les!” Rianne shoved through the crowd with her usual exuberance. “Did I miss seeing the dessert tray?” “Just two of the tasty treats today …” Leslie linked her arm through Rianne’s as they made their way toward their lockers. Rianne was reliably good at keeping things light. “So dark-and-pierced wasn’t on duty?” Rianne flashed a wicked grin at Aislinn, who blushed predictably. “No Seth.

Today was blond-and-moody along with scarred-and-sexy.” Leslie winked at Aislinn, enjoying the brief moments of normalcy, of smiling. Rianne brought that in her wake, and Leslie was ever grateful for it. They stopped in front of Aislinn’s locker, and Leslie added, “Our little dessert hoarder was just going to tell me when we’re all going out dancing.” “No, not—” Aislinn started. “Sooner or later, you’re going to need to share the wealth, Ash. We’re feeling deprived. Weakened.” Rianne sighed and leaned heavily on Leslie. “I’m feeling faint with it.

” And for a moment, Leslie saw a look of longing pass over Aislinn’s face, but then Aislinn caught her watching. Aislinn’s face turned impassive. “Sometimes I wish I could … I just don’t think it’s a good idea.” Rianne opened her mouth to respond, but Leslie shook her head. “Give us a sec, Ri. I’ll catch up.” After Rianne left, Leslie caught Aislinn’s gaze. “I wish we weren’t doing this. …” She gestured between them. “What do you mean?” Aislinn grew so still and silent in the din of the hall, it was like the noise around them vanished for an instant.

.

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