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Darkest Mercy

Melissa Marr



  Melissa Marr

  To Anne Hoppe,

  for loving Donia even more than I do,

  for faery wings and temp tattoos,

  for putting the “good parts” at the end of the letter,

  for arguing and for not arguing,

  and for skipping your tea one Saturday morning

  to fall for these characters



  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41



  About the Author

  Also by Melissa Marr


  About the Publisher


  Niall walked through the ruins of the tattoo shop. Shards of painted glass crunched under his boots. The floor was strewn with vials of ink, unopened needles, electric apparatus he couldn’t identify, and other things he’d rather not identify. The Dark King had known rage before, known grief; he’d felt helpless, felt unprepared; but he’d never before had all of those emotions converge on him at once.

  He paused and lifted one of the mangled bits of metal and wire from the floor. He turned it over in his hand. Only a year ago, a tattoo machine—maybe this one—had bound Irial to the mortal who had brought the former Dark King and Niall together again after a millennium. Irial was the constant, the one faery that had been a part of Niall’s life—for better and worse—for more than a thousand years.

  Niall stabbed his bloodied hand with the broken tattoo machine. His own blood welled up and mingled with the drying blood on his hands. His blood. Irial’s blood is on my hands because I couldn’t stop Bananach. Niall lifted the broken machine in his hand, but before he could stab himself a second time, a Hound grabbed his wrist.

  “No.” The Hound, Gabriel’s mate, Chela, took the machine. “The stretcher is here, and—”

  “Is he awake?”

  Mutely, Chela shook her head and led him toward the living room, where Irial lay.

  “He will heal,” Niall said, trying the words out, testing the Hound’s reaction to his opinion.

  “I hope so,” she said, even as her doubt washed over him.

  Irial was motionless on the litter. The uneven rising and falling of his chest proved that he still lived, but the pinched look on his face made clear that he was suffering. His eyes were closed, and his taunting grin was absent.

  The healer was finishing packing some sort of noxious-smelling plants against the wound, and Niall wasn’t sure whether it was worse to look at Irial or at the bloodied bandages on the floor.

  The Hound, Gabriel’s second-in-command, lowered her voice. “The Hunt stands at your side, Niall. Gabriel has made that clear. We will fight at your side. We will not let Bananach near you.”

  Niall came to stand beside Irial and asked the healer, “Well?”

  “He’s as stable as can be expected.” The healer turned to face Niall. “We can make him comfortable while the poison takes him or we can end his suffer—”

  “No!” Niall’s abyss-guardians flared to life in shared rage. “You will save him.”

  “Bananach stabbed him with a knife carved of poison. He’s as good as d—” The rest of the words were lost under the Dark King’s roar of frustration.

  Irial opened his eyes, grabbed Niall’s hand, and rasped, “Don’t kill the messenger, love.”

  “Shut up, Irial,” Niall said, but he didn’t pull his hand away. With his free hand, he motioned for the waiting faeries to approach. “Be careful with him.”

  Niall released Irial’s hand so that the faeries could lift the stretcher.

  As they left the tattoo shop, Hounds fell into formation around Niall and the injured king, walking in front, flanking them, and following them.

  The former Dark King’s eyes closed again; his chest did not appear to rise.

  Niall reached out and put a hand on the injured faery’s chest. “Irial!”

  “Still here.” Irial didn’t open his eyes, but he smiled a little.

  “You’re an ass,” Niall said, but he kept his hand on Irial’s chest so that he could feel both pulse and breath.

  “You too, Gancanagh,” Irial murmured.

  Far too many miles away from Huntsdale, Keenan leaned against the damp cave wall. Outside, the desert sky glimmered with stars, but he wanted to be home, had wanted to be home since almost the moment he’d left. Soon. He’d needed to be away, needed to find answers, and until he did that he couldn’t go back. Being on his own was unheard of, but despite the challenges, he was certain he was doing the right thing. Of course, he’d been certain of a lot of things. Surety was not a trait he lacked, but it did not always lead to wise choices.

  He closed his eyes and let sleep take him.

  “Is this what you freely choose, to risk winter’s chill?” Sunlight flickered under his skin, and he reveled in the hope that this time it would not end, that this time, this girl, was the one he’d been seeking for so long.

  She didn’t look away. “It’s what you want.”

  “You understand that if you are not the one, you’ll carry the Winter Queen’s chill until the next mortal risks this? And you agree to warn her not to trust me?” He paused, and she nodded. “If she refuses me, you will tell the next girl and the next”—he moved closer—“and not until one accepts, will you be free of the cold.”

  “I do understand.” She walked over to the hawthorn bush. The leaves brushed against her arms as she bent down and reached under it—and stopped.

  She straightened and stepped away from the staff. “I understand, and I want to help you . . . but I can’t. I won’t. Maybe if I loved you, I could, but . . . I don’t love you. I’m so sorry, Keenan.”

  Vines wrapped around her body, became a part of her, and as they stretched toward him, his sunlight faded.

  He dropped to his knees . . . and was once more in front of another girl. He’d done this for centuries: asked the same words of girl after girl. He couldn’t stop, not until he found her. He saw her, though, and he knew that this girl was different.

  “Is this what you freely choose, to risk winter’s chill?” he asked her.

  She glared at him. “It’s not what I want.”

  “You understand that if you are not the one, you’ll carry the Winter Queen’s chill until the next mortal risks this? And you agree to warn her not to trust me?” He held his breath for a moment, feeling the sunlight flare in his body.

  “I don’t love you,” she said.

  “If she refuses me, you will tell the next girl and the next”—he moved closer—“and not until one accepts, will you be free of the cold.”r />
  “I do understand, but I don’t want to be with you for eternity. I don’t want to be your queen. I’ll never love you, Keenan. I love Seth.” She smiled at someone who stood in the shadows, and then she walked toward the hawthorn bush—and kept walking.

  “No! Wait.” He reached down, and his fingers wrapped around the Winter Queen’s staff. The rustling of trees grew almost deafening as he ran after her.

  Her shadow fell on the ground in front of her as he stood behind her. “Please, Aislinn. I know you’re the one. . . .”

  He held out the Winter Queen’s staff—and hoped. For a moment he even believed, but when she turned and took it from his hands, the ice filled her. Her summer-blue eyes filled with frost, and it crawled over her body.

  Aislinn screamed his name: “Keenan!”

  She stumbled toward him, and he ran from her until he couldn’t breathe in the freezing air from her continuing screams.

  He fell to his knees, surrounded by winter.


  He looked up.

  “No. You can’t. Say no. Please say no,” he pleaded.

  “But I’m here. You told me to come to you, and I’m here.” She laughed. “You told me you needed me.”

  “Donia, run. Please, run,” he urged. But then he was compelled to ask, “Is this what you freely choose, to risk winter’s chill?”

  She stared directly at him. “It’s what I want. It’s what I’ve always wanted.”

  “You understand that if you are not the one, you’ll carry the Winter Queen’s chill until the next mortal risks this? And you agree to warn her not to trust me?” He paused, hoping she’d say no before it was too late.

  She nodded.

  “If she refuses me, you will tell the next girl and the next”—he moved closer—“and not until one accepts, will you be free of the cold.”

  “I do understand.” She smiled reassuringly, and then she walked over to the hawthorn bush. The leaves brushed against her arms as she bent down and reached under it.

  “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

  She smiled again as her fingers wrapped around the Winter Queen’s staff. It was a plain thing, worn as if countless hands had clenched the wood.

  He moved even closer. The rustling of trees grew almost deafening. The brightness from her skin, even her hair, intensified.

  She held the Winter Queen’s staff—and the ice did not fill her. Sunlight did.

  She breathed his name in a sigh: “Keenan.”

  “My queen, my Donia, I wanted it to be you.” His sunlight seemed to fade under her brightness. “It’s you . . . it’s really you. I love you, Don.”

  He reached for her, but she stepped away.

  Her sunlight grew blinding as she laughed. “But I’ve never loved you, Keenan. How could I? How could anyone?”

  He stumbled after her, but she walked away, leaving him, taking the sunlight with her.

  Keenan was still reaching for her when he opened his eyes. The cave where he’d been sleeping was filled with steam. Not frost. Not ice. He let the sunlight inside him flare brighter, trying to chase away the darkness where his fears and hopes played out in twisted dreams.

  Not so different from reality.

  The faery he’d loved for decades and the queen he’d sought for centuries were both angry with him.

  Because I’ve failed them both.

  Chapter 1

  Donia walked aimlessly, taking comfort in the crisp bite in the air. The promise of it made her want to draw it deeply into her lungs. She did, releasing the cold with each breath, letting the lingering breath of winter race free. Equinox was fast approaching. Winter was ending, and letting loose the frost and snow soothed her as few things could of late.

  Evan, the rowan-man who headed her guard, fell in step with her. His gray-brown skin and dark green leafy hair made him a shadow in the not-yet-dawning day. “Donia? You left without guards.”

  “I needed space.”

  “You should’ve woken me at least. There are too many threats. . . .” His words dwindled, and he lifted his bark-clad fingers as if to caress her face. “He is a fool.”

  Donia glanced away. “Keenan owes me nothing. What we had—”

  “He owes you everything,” Evan corrected. “You stood against the last queen and risked all for him.”

  “One’s court must come first.” The Winter Queen lifted her shoulder in a small shrug, but Evan undoubtedly knew that she was walking because she missed Keenan more and more. They didn’t discuss it, and she’d not descended into foolish melancholia. She loved the absent Summer King, but she simply wasn’t the sort of person to fall apart over heartbreak.

  Rage, however . . . that is another matter.

  She forced away the thought. Her temper was precisely why she couldn’t settle for only half of Keenan’s attention.

  Or heart.

  Evan motioned to the other guards he’d brought out with him, and they moved farther away, all but three disappearing into the night at his command. The three who remained, white-winged Hawthorn Girls, never wandered far from her side if at all possible. Except for when I leave without telling anyone. Their red eyes glowed like beacons in the poorly lit street, and Donia took a measure of comfort in their presence.

  “I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that it’s too dangerous for you to be out alone,” Evan said.

  “And I would be a weak queen if I wasn’t able to handle myself for a few moments alone,” Donia reminded her advisor.

  “I’ve never found you weak, even when you weren’t a queen.” He shook his head. “Summer Court might not be powerful enough to injure you, but Bananach is growing stronger by the day.”

  “I know.” Donia felt a flush of guilt.

  Faeries from all of the courts had been slipping away, and Donia knew that they were joining Bananach. Can she form her own court? The mortality of the newer monarchs caused more than a little unease, and War had made sure to nettle to heighten the tension. Likewise, worries over the interrelations between courts caused traditionalists to rally around Bananach. Niall wasn’t openly sympathetic to the Summer Court, but his centuries advising them made his faeries ill at ease. Her whatever-it-was with Keenan had a similar effect on some of her court, and Summer’s attempts at imposing order on their court made faeries who were used to freedom chafe.

  Donia wished that a new court was what Bananach sought, but the raven-faery was the embodiment of war and discord. The odds of her settling for a peacefully created court—if such a thing was even possible—weren’t high. Mutiny and murder were far more likely goals for Bananach and her growing number of allies.

  War comes.

  Once the others were out of sight, Evan announced, “I have word of trouble from the Dark Court.”

  “More conflict?” she asked, as Evan led her around a group of junkies on the stoop of an abandoned tenement building. When she’d walked with Keenan over the years, he’d always sent a cloud of warm air to such mortals. Unlike him, she couldn’t offer them any comfort.

  Keenan. She felt the fool for being unable to stop thinking about him. Even now. Every other thought still seemed to lead to him, even though he’d been gone for almost six months. With no contact.

  She exhaled a small flurry of snow. In almost a century, she’d never gone very long without seeing him, or hearing from him, even if it was nothing more than a letter.

  “Bananach attacked the Hounds two days ago,” Evan said, drawing Donia’s attention back to him.

  “A direct attack?”

  Her guard and advisor shook his head. “Not at first. One of the Dark King’s halflings was caught and killed, and while the Dark King and the rest were mourning, Bananach attacked them with her allies. The Hunt is not reacting well.”

  Donia paused mid-step. “Niall has children? Bananach killed his child?”

  Evan’s lips curved into a small smile. “No. Neither Niall nor the last king has children of his own, but the former Dark K
ing always sheltered his court’s halflings. His fey—Niall’s fey now—are amorous creatures, and the Hounds mate with mortals far more than any other fey. It is an old tradition.” Evan paused and flashed a faux-serious look at her. “I forget how young you are.”

  She rolled her eyes. “No, you don’t. You’ve known me most of my life. I’m just not ancient like you.”


  She waited, knowing he wasn’t done. His patterns were a familiar rhythm by now.

  “The Dark has a regard for family that is unlike the other courts.” With a slight rustling of leaves he moved closer. “If Bananach is killing those dear to Irial . . . the court will be unstable. Death of our kind is never easy, and the Hounds, in particular, will not deal with pointless murder. If it were in battle, they would accept it more easily. This was before the battle.”

  “Murder? Why would she kill a halfling?” Donia let frost trail in her wake, giving in to the growing pressure inside. It was not yet spring, so she could justify freezing the burgeoning blossoms.

  Evan’s red eyes darkened until they barely glowed, like the last flare of coals in an ashy fire. He was watchful as they moved, not looking at her but at the streets and shadowed alleys they passed. “To upset Irial? To provoke the Hunt? Her machinations aren’t always clear.”

  “The halfling—”

  “A girl. More mortal than fey.” He led Donia down another street, motioning for her to step around several more sleeping vagrants.