Author's note: I believe there are some inconsistencies here with stuff I forgot to mention in the previous chapters. Just... pretend it all works together. I'll fix it when I go back to edit everything.
I woke much later, at Avaln's insistence. He wanted me to eat, he said, and I reluctantly did so even as my stomach twisted at the sight of food. But the sandwiches were bland and would survive even the infernal swaying of the carriage. I leaned back against the seat when I was done, closing my eyes and fighting off the dizzying nausea I felt. I wasn't certain exactly what was causing it. My neck was sore where Avaln had bitten me and I wished I had a mirror, so I could judge the extent of the injury.
"Don't ever do that again," I whispered to him.
"Oh?" he said, his tone dangerously quiet, "Is that an order, Jennings?"
"I – don't know. I can't think straight. Why-?"
"A mark of ownership, Amber. And a sign that, despite the oath, you do not hold my leash, but it is the other way around."
"That's not true," I said, struggling to sit upright, "Don't you dare-"
"It doesn't matter what the reality is," Avaln interrupted, "It's what the outlaying nobles think that matters. Mirain has stacked the guest list with my enemies and I would see them think you cowed and helpless in my thrall. And if you can't give a good enough impression on your own, I will keep you subdued beneath my will for the entire evening. It is a balancing act, Amber Jennings, and right now you need be weak so that they think me strong – strong enough to twist the oath to my advantage."
I fell silent. There was a certain amount of rationality in his words and worse, I thought he would do exactly as he threatened. If it were for my protection – than yes – the oath would permit him to do so, surely. He'd already gotten away with a bite with seemingly no consequences. I raised a hand and gingerly touched where his teeth had punctured my neck and felt the edges of the wound there, the scabs recessed and sticky to the touch. It ached at even my light gesture and I dropped my hand to my lap. Enough times of this, I thought, and I would have permanent scars there. Avaln would probably ensure that happened. It was a sickening thought.
I dozed on and off for the rest of the journey. As new an experience as it was to be traveling by carriage, it was exceedingly dull, for Avaln seemed in no mood for conversation. He gave me some instruction on how to handle myself among polite society, but it was terse and only what I would need to know for etiquette. When he was done with this, he made it clear he was not interested in further talk, and fell into a brooding silence. He seemed far more self-absorbed than before, almost lost in his own dark thoughts, and I wondered if the bite had anything to do with it. He'd seemed to have torn himself from me, as if it took an effort of will, and I shuddered to think what would have happened if he hadn't the self-control to relinquish me.
Avaln shook me awake a short distance out from Mirain's manor. I stretched as best I could, surprised at how bone-sore I was from the jolting of the carriage, and I wondered how the vampire could stand traveling this way. How anyone could.
"So I'm kind of nervous here," I said as I peered out the narrow window at the approaching manor.
It was square in front with an open front yard, lined by young trees, and the construction of the building itself was unremarkable – some balconies, but little of the interesting architecture that Avaln's sported. There were lights all along the path, glowing with that luminescent blue, and the front of the manor was lit with candles along the the walls on either side of the wide stairway. There were servants out front, helping guests disembark and taking the carriages away towards the stable. The moon hung low in the sky and it seemed this was the otherworld's twilight, a passage from dark to utter darkness. It was hard to believe I'd been in a carriage all day.
"Of course you are," Avaln murmured, "Just don't speak and stay close to me."
He stepped out first, then turned to give me his hand and help me down. I caught up my skirts with one hand, watching that I didn't tread on the hem, and he led me across the short walk and up the stairs, where a man waited for us at the door. The vampire drew up short and I did as well, one hand around the inside of Avaln's arm, resting on the bend of his elbow. I had to admit that even though the layers of my dress were heavy and confining, there was a certain confidence that they lent me. As if I belonged here, by virtue of dressing proper.
"Mirain," Avaln said, sounding both pleasant and cold at the same time, "I thank you for your invitation. It's always a pleasure to attend your parties."
"As it is my honor to receive you," the changeling replied and I saw his eyes flicker over to me, "I have been looking forwards to meeting the new Jennings. Please, may I?"
He held out both hands to me and to my sudden dismay, the vampire slipped my arm free and gave a gentle push at my waist, guiding me forwards a step to where the otherworlder waited. The changeling caught up my wrists and I stood stock-still, heart pounding, conscious of Avaln's warning to not speak at all if I was in doubt of what to say. This was a game. I was simply a piece on the board at this moment. The changeling studied me and I did the same in return. He wasn't terribly tall, only a few inches more than I, and his ears were long and pointed, almost feline in nature. His eyes were small and narrow, tilted, yellow, like those of a wild animal. There was fur along where his tawny hair started, so that it was difficult to see where the hairline actually was, and his hands were similarly tufted, his jacket cut at the elbow instead of the wist to show off the shock of fur that ran along the underside of his arm. He had a tail, I saw, and there were bands of silver around it, glinting with jewels in the candlelight. His teeth were like those of a cat and his nose was squat, giving his entire face a malicious cast.
"She looks... delicate," he finally said and one hand brushed the side of my face, drifting down towards where Avaln had bitten me. I flinched at the gesture, then caught myself and held as still as I could, daring myself to meet the changeling's eyes. Avaln wanted me weak before the other guests, however, this was Mirain. Him, I wanted to believe I was capable. And it took an effort, but I forced myself to believe it, to look at the changeling and think that yes, I could best him if it came to that.
"She is human," Avaln replied and he sounded almost bored to me, "They took her from America for me."
"I've heard they pride themselves on their strength and independence over there."
"As have I. We shall see if that's true, I suppose."
"So we shall." And the way the changeling said it, it sounded like a promise. "Come. No sense standing outside all evening."
He released my wrists and I found myself once more at Avaln's side. Mirain was talking idly about the other guests, rattling off who all was here and not. As we entered, the noise inside quieted for a moment, and someone standing off to the side announced Avaln by his title and full name. I was not mentioned at all. Then the conversation started up again, and I saw a couple otherworlders make a line for the vampire, either giving a bow or curtsey as they approached according to assumed gender. Some were so close to human it was difficult to tell they were otherworlder, others were more obvious. I saw a woman with skin speckled with scales, her hair the color of jade, seafoam, and ivory. Another, a man with gray skin like Tatin, and with the way his eyes lingered on me I thought he had to be an incubus as well. More changelings, a wolf that walked upright that I thought must be a werewolf, and others that I had no knowledge of. I remained close to Avaln, my heart beating fast, as he navigated the room, pausing here and there to speak with the otherworlders. For being in a room with enemies, Avaln seemed at ease and the conversation remained polite. There was mild interest in myself and at times Avaln would release me from his arm, leaving me standing there alone to be inspected by whichever otherworlder had expressed interest. I remembered what Avaln had requested each time and remained still, staring off away, and it was not hard to shiver as fingers touched the fabric of my dress or the unbroken skin of my neck, pausing just short of where Avaln had bitten me.
I wasn't certain how much time had passed before Mirain gathered us for the formal meal. I was somewhat surprised to see that I was included at the table, but it seemed that I was a curiosity for the otherworlders, something of an amusement – like a dog that had been taught to sit in a chair and use a fork. The meal was lavish, with three courses, appetizer, and dessert, with servants that refilled the wine the moment the glass was half-empty. I ate sparingly, for the food all had the metallic undertone I was growing to despise, and the wine was no better. Mirain seemed to be leading the conversation and sometime during the second course, it turned towards the topic of his most recent acquisition. My stomach clenched into a knot when I realized he was referring to the girl, Emily.
"The lineage isn't quite as interesting at your new pet," Mirain said to Avaln, "but not everyone can be so lucky."
He gestured, and after a moment a girl appeared from one of the adjoining rooms. She walked with her hands clasped in front of her, her steps slow and even. Her dress was robin's egg blue, plain, with lace at the neck and sleeves. Someone had curled her long hair, a brown that glinted red when it caught the light, and she kept her eyes fixed on the floor. Something caught in my throat. She did not look poorly – but there was a set to her shoulders that hurt to look at. Mirain was ensuring she was well-kept, but it was clear that the girl was frightened. She did exactly as the changeling bid, coming to stand at his side, her eyes down, and the otherworlder rested a hand flat on her back.
"And who took her place?" one of the female otherworlders asked.
"Karamine has. She's not one of mine, but she's far from home and needed someone to tend to the human while she kept her shape bound up. I, of course, am happy to grant such requests to my kin."
"Didn't she come from Avaln's territory?" another asked. Avaln sipped at his wine before replying.
"She did," the vampire said, his voice low and there was a hint of steel in it, as if he dared anyone at the table to take issue with it, "I can only assume that – being not from this area – Karamine was mistaken as to where the borders lie."
"I'm sure that was the case," Mirain replied, his voice just as composed, "The slight was unintentional, I assure you. If you wish, I could speak with Karamine about compensation-"
"Don't bother," Avaln replied dismissively, "It's just a human child."
There was anger in me, hot, and I stared down at my plate and twisted my fingers together under the table. Utter bullshit. Mirain knew exactly what he was doing – he had Tatin beaten and bound in the sunlight to take the girl, and he had been there in person for it. And Avaln – I wondered at how coldly he'd rejected the issue off-hand, as if it were not worth quarreling over. There was something there, I thought, some sort of posturing I couldn't see. In fact, Mirain even looked disappointed at the vampire's answer. The other guests, on the other hand, seemed satisfied by this, and talk quickly moved on to another topic entirely. Emily remained silent at Mirain's side until the changeling leaned over and whispered something to her, smiling thinly as she turned and walked from the room.
I was not involved in any of the conversation, even though at one point the talk revolved around me specifically. The guests had not been aware of any Jennings of my age and gender, and so Avaln told them how I came from America. How the British agents had gone there specifically to bring me back, and done so against my will. This seemed to greatly amuse the otherworlders. I kept my eyes down, playing the role of the subdued human pet, but I could see Mirain watching me from the corner of my vision. His scrutiny was subtle, but it made me think that perhaps he wasn't buying it, and I was glad he saw through the act. Let him wonder.
The guests divided after the meal, some retiring to their rooms, others breaking off to a sitting room for after-dinner conversation and more drinks. A few more went off to the garden and Avaln seemed about to join the group in the sitting room when he was intercepted by Mirain. The changeling waited until the room emptied and we were left alone, the servants making themselves suddenly scarce.
"A moment of honesty if you will," the changeling said, his face tight as he stared up at the vampire, "I find it concerning that you took her from America. If you've provoked a feud with the other continent-"
"I've done no such thing," Avaln replied, "They want nothing to do with our affairs here, and even sealed away the girl's dreams specifically to keep her from the otherworld. I took her with their permission - I wouldn't have brought her here without. I think we're both in agreement that the Americas can stay on their side of the ocean."
"One of the few things we agree on," the changeling muttered, "I'm glad to hear that. I've arranged for the Jennings girl to have a room next to yours, but if you prefer to keep her close I can have the servants move her things over."
"Do you swear to leave her alone through the night?"
"Yes, of course," the changeling said irritably, "Her room won't be disturbed by me or mine. I'm insulted you even require my word for that. I'd see your lands burn, Avaln, and I'd kill you myself if I could, but I still abide by the rules of hospitality."
"I think we're at the point where another insult won't change matters between us. Now, if you excuse me."
And the vampire took my arm and led me away with him. I risked a backwards glance over my shoulder and saw Mirain watching us, a look of annoyance on his face, and for a moment our eyes met. He smiled, thin-lipped, and something dark glittered in his eyes. There was a reason he'd planned this, I realized, and whatever his intent was, it was still to come. This time, I could not help but be afraid, and I clung tight to Avaln in earnest now, feeling the hostility of the manor itself settle around us. I remained in this state of half-terror for the rest of the evening, until the vampire finally excused himself and a servant appeared to lead us to our rooms.
Avaln left me in my room then, with terse instructions not to open it to anyone but him.
"But Mirain's oath-" I said and Avaln cut me off.
"I know," he replied tersely, "But do as I say. Do you need help with the dress?"
"I – yes."
I didn't want it, but I realized with dismay that I couldn't reach some of the fastenings on the underdress. Avaln moved around me, deftly undoing the outer layer and then the underdress along my back, until the buttons were all undone and the fabric peeled away like the skin of an onion. He jerked at the ties to the corset at my back and I unpinned the wire, finding the button that shut off the active recording to conserve the battery through the night. Then the corset came free, Avaln tossing it aside to a chair, and I heaved a sigh of relief at feeling my chest and waist freed from its pressure.
"There you are," the vampire said curtly, "I'll fetch you in the morning."
I remained there in the room for some time, sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting. Outside, I heard the other guests in the hallway, making their way to their own guest rooms. Those that lived close to Mirain's manor had departed, but it seemed about half still remained as it was too far to travel in one night, like myself and Avaln. I waited until the noise died down and silence fell, then I stood and dug in the luggage that Avaln's servants had packed for me until I found one of the jackets Somine had given me. I threw this on over my shift and then, I crept to the door and eased it open. The hallway beyond was empty. I wasn't about to simply go to bed, not when I had seen Emily but once. I had to know she was okay, hear it in her own words and know that she hadn't been hurt. I felt I at least owed her, her family, and agent Harter that.
My heart was in my throat as I walked down the hallway and I kept reminding myself that technically, I was a guest in Mirain's manor, and if the rules that Harter had told me were true then I wouldn't come to harm, not even if I was found wandering about. I made it as far as the second floor – our bedrooms were on the third – before I was discovered. I had no warning. I was simply walking along, as quiet as I could manage, then a hand closed around my arm and spun me about. My back caught up against the wall and I tried to cry out in surprise, but a hand closed over my mouth and someone hissed in my ear for silence. It was too dark to see who it was that had grabbed me, and his other arm was across my chest, holding me there.
"I've been waiting for this," the voice whispered, his mouth close to my ear and I shivered as I realized it was Mirain that held me fast, "I saw it in your eyes. You played the act well, girl, but you're just like the rest of your damned line, perhaps worse because you don't yet understand how dangerous we are. Tell me – did you start to realize it, when Avaln marked you here?"
He uncovered my mouth and his fingers touched my neck, just where Avaln had pierced the skin.
"He swore an oath," I said, trying to control the quiver in my voice.
"That only means he has to be creative with how he hurts you. Or, at least, that's how I'd play it. Tell me – what are you looking for, wandering at night like this? You need only ask if you wish to see the manor."
His tone had turned cordial, but the weight against my chest remained, holding me there against the wall.
"I think you know," I replied and while I could barely see his outline I could picture his smile.
"The girl. Emily. Yes, of course. I actually wanted to speak with you about that, Amber Jennings. Avaln has given her up, as I'm sure you're aware. She's not worth fighting over, but you, I don't think you realize that yet. And I'm more than willing to take advantage of that and make a bargain with you. Avaln is not here to stop us. He thinks you cowed, I imagine, overwhelmed by what he's thrown you into."
He laughed, low in his throat, and I felt his breath against the side of my face.
"And yet here you are," he whispered, "I think I may like you, girl. You're going to be fun. I think I'll take my time with you – killing you would be too unsatisfying. I'll see you broken first."
"What is the bargain, Mirain?"
I would not let him intimidate me. He could probably feel the pounding of my heart from under my jacket, but I would not let that overcome me.
"I'll permit you to take Emily from the manor. There's a dun horse in the stable that is tame enough for a human to ride. Take it, and make your escape with the girl if you can. I'll hunt you down, of course – I have to – but if you can get the girl to safety before that I'll relinquish her to ODV. Karamine will just have to accept that. It's not like she's actually one of mine."
"And what of me?"
"You're a guest under my roof, so taking Emily will mean you've broken the rules of hospitality and there will have to be some sort of repayment for that. Avaln will have no choice but to come to an agreement with me. I have no intention of harming him or that which belongs to him – you will bear the full brunt of it. You – and only you – will pay the cost."
I felt cold inside. There was a malicious pleasure in his words and I could almost sense the anticipation on him.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked, and this time I could not keep the sickness I felt out of my words. I was afraid now. The bargain hung before me, like poisoned fruit, and I knew in my heart I would have no choice but to take it if I ever wanted to get Emily out of here.
"Oh, that would be spoiling the surprise," Mirain purred, "I assure you, no lasting harm will come of it. You needn't fear for your virtue either, I've no interest. That's all I shall give you, however. Do we have a deal?"
"No lasting harm. That's a lot of leeway."
"Yes. It is." The pressure against my chest loosened and Mirain stepped back a pace. "Do we have an agreement, Amber Jennings?"
I took a deep breath. I couldn't think about this. I couldn't think about the consequences, for if I did, I would never agree, and this had to be done. I couldn't think beyond this moment.
"I accept," I said and I heard Mirain hiss in pleasure, "Give me a moment to go change. I can't be riding a horse in a shift."
"Of course. Meet me in the main entryway. I'll have Emily and will take you to a side door. You'll have two hours upon leaving the manor yard before I come for you."
I turned and hurried away, feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as I did, expecting something from behind, for Mirain to renege and hurt me while my back was turned. The darkness felt like it was alive and I could only think of one thing – I had to get Emily out of here. That was all that mattered now. I returned to my room and dug through my luggage, finding the most unassuming clothing I could. There were leggings that were tight and plain enough to be mistaken for capri pants in the modern world. The shirt was a bit more difficult, and I settled for ripping the lace and sleeves off one, leaving behind a button-up sleeveless blouse that would also suffice for a thrift store find if it had to. I took the wallet and cellphone ODV had provided and put this in my waistband, as well as the recording device. I didn't know if Avaln would actually deliver it. Then, I took a deep breath, and returned to the hallway, finding the stairwell and taking it down to the first floor. Mirain was waiting in the entryway, as he had promised. Emily was with him, holding tight to his arm, her eyes wide with fear. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, likely the clothing she was kidnapped in.
"Here we are," Mirain said to her as I approached, "This is Amber. She is human and is here to take you home."
The girl did not answer me. She just transferred her grip to my hand, reluctantly, at Mirain's gesture. She had the look of someone that no longer understood what was happening to them, and could only watch as events spun outside their control and carried them along in the undertow. I pulled her close alongside me and stared hard at Mirain. The changeling's flat expression regarded me a for a moment, his eyes like marbles, then he turned and led us through a number of smaller hallways to a side-door. Beyond was the yard, and in the distance, the glow of a lantern. That would be the stable, surely.
"Follow the path," Mirain said, "It'll take you out a gate and if you keep to the road, it'll lead you back to Avaln's territory. Remember, the dun horse. The rest will try and harm you."
I had no intention of taking one of his horses, not when there was a village not far from Mirain's manor. I had studied the surrounding territory on both sides well, and I was determined to cross over myself, with Emily in tow. I was a Jennings, it should be possible for me. But I would not tell Mirain this. Instead, I only started out into the dark, and beside me Emily made a small noise of terror as I pulled her alongside me.
"It's all right," I lied, "There's nothing to be afraid of. I'll protect you."
I took her past the stables, out through the gate to where the road was beyond, out of sight of the manor. Then, I stooped to look her in the eyes, and took a deep breath.
"Emily," I said, "We're almost there. I'm going to pull us both back into our world – where we belong – and there's some people who can help us from there, okay? I need you to trust me here. Hold tight to me and don't let go."
I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her tight to me. I felt her hand grab hold of the fabric of my shirt and I closed my eyes and envisioned the mirror, as Tatin had told me. I pictured myself standing there on the edge of it, the silver surface spread out like a lake beneath me. It would be night in our world, so I envisioned the moon, gibbous in its reflection, and then I let myself fall, my arms still tight around the girl. Both of us, falling through the air, striking that surface and then breaking through, falling into the other world beyond.
Emily cried out. I opened my eyes and let her go, reeling from the disorientation and the sensation that I was still falling, that I had not yet hit the ground. The trees were thinner now and I could see pasture beyond, and the moon was bright overhead. It was only half-full, but after the darkness of the otherworld I felt it was more than enough light. I stood, shakily, as Emily turned in a slow circle, speechless. Behind us was the mirror equivalent of Mirain's manor – deserted, windows gaping open with broken panes, the yard overgrown with weeds. I thought it appropriate.
"Let's go," I said, taking Emily's hand, "We've some distance to go yet. We're going to the nearby town and getting help there, okay? Let me call in and then we'll go."
ODV would trespass on Mirain's territory, but only so far. There was a town some distance from the manor, and this was as close as any agent would approach. Agent Harter was stationed there in case of trouble and I intended to deliver Emily to him and let him take her the rest of the way out of Mirain's territory. For all the power the otherworlders had, I doubted they'd be able to outdistance a car with a two-hour head start. I dialed in to Harter's cell and he answered after the first ring.
"I've got Emily," I said.
"Where are you?" His voice was terse. I could hear all the questions left unsaid, focusing instead on the most pertinent details, the facts that would get us all out of this alive and safe.
"Outside Mirain's manor. I'm on foot and we're heading for the town."
I took Emily's hand as I said this and started walking. She struggled to keep up with the pace I set and I reluctantly slowed my walk to match hers. This wouldn't do. I'd have to carry her once I was off the phone.
"How did you manage this?"
"Mirain made a bargain with me."
I heard Harter inhale sharply and there was a pause.
"Amber," he said carefully, "Do you know what you've done?"
"Not fully, no. But it's a chance to get Emily out of here and I'm the only one that's going to bear the consequences for this. He won't kill me."
"That doesn't mean-"
"I know," I snapped, suddenly angry with the agent. I didn't want to think of what was going to happen next. I didn't want to discuss it, I didn't want to dwell on it any way. "I saw Tatin, okay? I was there. And I don't know what's going to happen and I'm scared here, but Harter, I've got Emily with me. I couldn't just leave her."
"Okay," he replied, reluctant, "I'll meet you at the edge of town."
I hung up. Emily was frail beside me, clearly frightened by the conversation she'd just overheard. I was at a loss on how to reassure her, so I simply told her that it was going to be fine, that she'd be safe and I'd see her again. The girl did not reply. She just stared at the ground and gave me almost no indication of anything when I lifted her into my arms and carried her down the road.