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Ink Exchange

Melissa Marr

  Ink Exchange

  Melissa Marr

  To all the people who’ve been in the abyss and found

  (or are finding) a way to reach solid ground—

  you’re proof that the seemingly impossible can happen.

  And to A.S., who shared his shadows with me—

  I hope you found what you needed.



  Irial watched the girl stroll up the street: she was…

  Chapter 1

  Leslie slipped into her school uniform and got ready as…

  Chapter 2

  After school Leslie headed out before Aislinn or Rianne had…

  Chapter 3

  Irial stood in the early morning light, silent, one of…

  Chapter 4

  The tattoo shop was empty when Leslie walked in. No…

  Chapter 5

  Although Rabbit had told him where to find her, Irial…

  Chapter 6

  Leslie slipped into the kitchen, leaned on the wall, and…

  Chapter 7

  When Niall reached Verlaine’s, Irial had gone. Two of the…

  Chapter 8

  Leslie walked down the hall of Bishop O.C., shoes held…

  Chapter 9

  With a wariness that felt out of place in the…

  Chapter 10

  By the end of the week, Leslie was more exhausted…

  Chapter 11

  Niall knew better. He knew not to allow himself so…

  Chapter 12

  Several songs later, Leslie was thankful for the long hours…

  Chapter 13

  Leslie and Seth had gone several blocks before she felt…

  Chapter 14

  Since the Summer King was looking elsewhere for him, Irial…

  Chapter 15

  By the time Irial left, Niall was sure that the…

  Chapter 16

  When Leslie woke with the nightmares still riding her, she…

  Chapter 17

  “Leslie? Leslie!” Sylvie waved her hand in front of Leslie’s…

  Chapter 18

  As Niall led Leslie through the street toward Seth’s train,…

  Chapter 19

  Leslie woke in the middle of the night to see…

  Chapter 20

  The morning was barely upon him when Irial walked into…

  Chapter 21

  Half afraid last night had been a dream, Leslie looked…

  Chapter 22

  They’d spent the day together playing video games, talking, and…

  Chapter 23

  Irial woke with a scream half formed on his lips.

  Chapter 24

  Leslie felt a compulsion riding inside her, leaving her with…

  Chapter 25

  Irial watched Leslie walk away with the Summer Queen’s mortal.

  Chapter 26

  Leslie and Seth were several blocks away before she finally…

  Chapter 27

  Niall was only halfway into the front room of the…

  Chapter 28

  It was evening when Leslie woke in her own room,…

  Chapter 29

  Niall had walked out on his king; he’d failed Leslie;…

  Chapter 30

  Leslie rolled over, out of Irial’s reach. Despite the vastness…

  Chapter 31

  Snatches of time were nothing but blurs and blank spaces,…

  Chapter 32

  Irial had spent several days watching Leslie struggle with the…

  Chapter 33

  Over the next week, he pushed her until she was…

  Chapter 34

  The moon was well overhead when Irial crept across the…

  Chapter 35

  Niall had stopped by the loft to gather a few…

  Chapter 36

  Leslie drifted in and out of consciousness for several days…


  As he often had over the past few weeks, Niall…

  Author’s Note


  About the Author

  Other Books by Melissa Marr



  About the Publisher



  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 pulser 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.



  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, be
fore 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 off…

  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 he 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 mother’s 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 Bishop O’Connell High 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-too-yummy 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.