Old HabitsMelissa Marr
Read on for a sneak peek into DARKEST MERCY
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After Ink Exchange
“You’re going to make an excellent king,” Irial said.
And before Niall could react, Irial pressed his mouth to the long scar that he’d once allowed Gabriel to carve on Niall’s face. Niall felt his knees give out from under him, felt a disquieting new energy flood his body, felt the awareness of countless dark fey like threads in a great tapestry weaving his life to theirs.
“Take good care of the Dark Court. They deserve that. They deserve you.” Irial bowed his head. “My king.”
“No.” Niall stumbled back, tottering on the sidewalk, nearly falling into the traffic. “I don’t want this. I’ve told you—”
“The court needs new energy, Gancanagh. I got us through Beira’s reign, found ways to strengthen us. I’m tired—more changed by Leslie than I’ll admit, even to you. You may have broken our tie, seared me from her skin, but that doesn’t undo my changes. I am no longer fit to lead my court.” Irial smiled sadly. “My court—your court now— needs a new king. You’re the right choice. You have always been the next Dark King.”
“Take it back.” Niall felt the foolishness of his words, but he couldn’t think of anything more articulate.
“If you don’t want it—”
“Pick someone worthy to pass it on to, then.” Irial’s eyes were lightening ever so slightly. The eerily tempting energy that had always clung to him like a haze was less overwhelming now. “In the meantime, I offer you what I’ve never offered another—my fealty, Gancanagh, my king.”
He knelt then, head bowed, there on the busy sidewalk. Mortals craned their necks to stare.
And Niall gaped at Irial, the last Dark King, as the reality settled on him. He’d just grab the first dark fey he saw and . . . turn over this kind of power to some random faery? A dark faery? He thought of Bananach and the Ly Ergs circling, seeking war and violence. Irial was moderate in comparison to Bananach’s violence. Niall couldn’t turn the court over to just anyone, not in good conscience, and Irial knew it.
“The head of the Dark Court has always been chosen from the solitary fey. I waited a long time to find another after you said no. But then I realized I was waiting for you to leave Keenan. You didn’t choose me over him, but you chose the harder path.” Irial stood then and took Niall’s face in his hands, gently but firmly, and kissed his forehead. “You’ll do well. And when you are ready to talk, I’ll still be here.”
Then he disappeared into the throng of mortals winding down the sidewalk, leaving Niall speechless and bewildered.
Several weeks later
Niall walked through Huntsdale, trying to ignore the responses his presence elicited. He’d never walked unnoticed. Over the centuries, he’d been a Gancanagh and (unknowingly) the companion to the Dark King; later, he’d been advisor to both the late Summer King and the current Summer King. None of those were roles associated with dismissal. He’d always had influence. When he was with Irial, he hadn’t realized that his companion was the Dark King, but that hadn’t meant that many of those he’d encountered were unaware. They knew the influence he’d wielded before he did.
Dark Court faeries—my faeries now—scurried around him. They were always in reach, always in sight, always willing to do the least thing that he required. They sought his approval, and despite wishing he was impervious, he couldn’t withhold his responses. Being their king meant feeling a connection to them that he’d only ever felt twice—to Irial and to Leslie. Perversely, perhaps, being the Dark King meant he felt even more connected to both the faery and the mortal girl. Leslie, although she’d severed her tie to Irial, was still protected by the Dark Court, and Irial, while no longer king, was the pulse of the court.
Worse, Niall could taste the emotions of every faery he passed. He knew the things they sought to hide with their implacable expressions. He knew their pains and their hungers. It made the world flex with sensory overloads.
Which is why I hide.
Niall walked in the door of the Crow’s Nest, the mortal club where his closest friend waited. Seth didn’t stand when he saw Niall; he didn’t bow or scurry. He merely nodded and said, “Hey.”
The weight of the job Niall didn’t want seemed to slip away. He sat down at the small table in the back of the dim building. The jukebox was turned on, but the volume was at a bearable level this early in the day. A few mortals threw darts; others watched a soccer match on the oversized television; and a couple silently drank their beers. It was peaceful.
Seth pushed an ashtray toward Niall. “What’s up?”
Niall frowned. He’d unconsciously pulled out a cigarette when he sat. The habit, like too many other things in Niall’s life, was something he associated with Irial. Even when he’s not beside me, he’s tangled into most everything I do. Niall stared at the cigarette and refused to remember the first time he’d smoked. Memories of Irial are never good to dwell on.
“You look worse than usual today,” Seth said.
Niall shrugged. “Some days . . . some days I hate Irial.”
“And the other ones?”
That was the catch, the other days. Niall took a drag off the cigarette, enjoyed the feel of the smoke sliding into his lungs. He exhaled after a moment. “The other days, I know he was right. I am the Dark King and whining about it is futile.”
“You could always give it away, right?” Seth leaned back, tilting his chair so it was balanced on two legs.
“Sure. If I want to be a fool.” Niall signaled the waitress and ordered a drink.
Once the waitress walked away, Seth leaned forward. “So what aren’t you saying?”
Niall exhaled a plume of smoke. “I called Leslie.”
“I thought I could suggest that we could be friends. Leslie and me.” Niall paused, but Seth said nothing. The mortal simply stared at him, so Niall continued, “I wasn’t calling to suggest we . . . date.”
“Bullshit.” Seth shook his head. “You don’t want to be her friend. Listen to how carefully you had to phrase that lie.”
“If it were a lie, I couldn’t say it.”
“Really?” Seth quirked one brow. “Try to tell me you just want to be her friend. Go ahead. Say it.”
“I don’t think that—”
“It would be a lie, wouldn’t it?” Seth interrupted. “Telling me you want to be just her friend would be a lie. You can’t say it.”
“Why are we friends?” Niall muttered.
“Because I don’t lie to you or pander to you.” Seth grinned. “You don’t like being adored or disobeyed . . . which makes you messed up enough to lead a bunch of crazy faeries, but makes you need a few friends who aren’t crazy faeries.”
They sat silently while Niall accepted the drink the waitress delivered. He’d never had much trouble attracting mortal attention, but he’d expected it to lessen now that the Gancanagh addictiveness was negated. Instead, he was able to touch mortals safely, but was no less appealing to them. In his life, the only one who seemed to want absolutely nothing from him wa
s the mortal who watched him now. Unfortunately, Seth wasn’t immune to the traits that made Niall interesting to most mortals. He was simply aware of them—and thus better able to know them for what they were. Which is why he keeps his distance. Seth was utterly nonjudgmental, but he was also utterly devoted to his beloved, Aislinn. And completely hetero.
Niall reached into his pocket and pulled out a nondescript stone. It didn’t look like much, but it enabled the mortal holding it to resist faery persuasion. Such stones were difficult to come by, prized all the more for their rarity, but considering the challenges Seth faced—some of which are my fault—it was a necessity. Rather than waste time with words, Niall simply slid the stone across the bar table. “Here.”
“A rock. You shouldn’t have.” Seth lifted it between his thumb and index finger. Immediately, a look of peace came over the mortal’s face. “Damn.”
Seth stared at Niall with such raw gratitude plain in his expression that Niall felt a surge of guilt—and was discomforted enough that he wanted to erase that look.
“If you don’t want it . . .” Niall teased as he reached out.
For the first time since Niall had become the Dark King, Seth didn’t move out of reach. He also didn’t release the stone. Instead, he curled his hand around it so the stone was wrapped firmly in his palm.
Seth laid his other hand on Niall’s forearm briefly. “I’d say no one’s ever given me such a useful gift, but that seems too slight. It’s . . . difficult being around the Summer Court, the Summer Girls especially . . . they’re good about trying not to manipulate me.” Seth paused and looked up at Niall. “Usually.”
Niall smiled at the memory of the Summer Girls’ lack of restraint. He missed them, some more than others, but he doubted that the Summer King would support the idea of Niall visiting them. “They aren’t used to restraint. It speaks well of their regard for you that they even try.”
“And you?” Seth prompted.
“I noticed your tendency to keep a table between us,” Niall admitted.
“It’s not personal, you know?” Seth flashed an amused smile then, one Niall hadn’t seen in weeks. “If you were female, your . . . uhh . . . appeal would be cool. Not that Ash would be good with me doing anything then either, but I’m not into guys. No offense.”
Niall laughed. “None taken.”
As they talked, Seth had kept the stone clenched in his hand. He took a deep breath, laid it down in front of him, and reached back to unfasten the chain he wore around his throat, all while keeping his gaze on the stone. Niall realized then how difficult it must’ve been for the mortal to be surrounded by so many faeries. Yet he did so. Niall could write it off as merely a result of Seth’s relationship with Aislinn, but it wasn’t because of the Summer Queen that Seth sat here at the table with Niall. Aislinn would be happier if Seth severed ties with Niall.
Seth slid the silver chain through a hole in the stone and then fastened the chain around his throat. When he was done, he tucked the stone under his shirt. “It’s like the world got more in control all of the sudden. I owe you one.” Seth poked at the ring in his lower lip. “Not that I have any idea how to repay that kind of gift, but I will.”
“It wasn’t given with a price attached,” Niall pointed out. “It’s a gift, freely given. No more, no less.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t look like . . . let’s just say it was a little weird looking at you and having thoughts that I know aren’t what I think of you, and”—Seth bit his lip ring as he obviously weighed his words—“well, not everyone has been as unaware of how they could affect me.”
“You’re not talking about just the Summer Girls, are you?” Niall felt his temper slip a little at the realization that his friend was being manipulated. “Will you tell me who?”
“Nope.” Seth grinned. “I’m not offering you an excuse to start shit with anyone, and now that I have this, I think those head games will be entertaining for me for a change. It’s all good.”
For a moment, Niall debated pressing the matter, but part of being a friend meant trusting that Seth would speak if he needed help. Niall tapped out another cigarette. “You’ll let me know if you need intercession.” He looked at Seth as he packed his cigarette. “I have a few faeries who might find it entertaining to assist you.”
“Yeah, Ash would be thrilled if I send the Dark Court knocking.” Seth quirked a brow again. “You want to pick a fight with the Summer Court, you’ll do it on your own. I’m not planning to give you an excuse.”
Niall lit his cigarette. “Just don’t forget.”
“Not today, okay?”
Admitting defeat, Niall held up his hands.
“So how are you?” Seth prodded carefully. “Are you getting along any better with your . . . predecessor?”
The fact was that Niall did want to talk to Seth about that topic, but he didn’t quite know what to say; not yet, at least. He took a drink. He smoked.
And Seth waited.
“He’s gone missing regularly, and I don’t know what he’s doing.” Niall shook his head. He was more than a millennium old, and he was seeking advice from a mortal child. “Never mind.”
“And you don’t want to ask what he’s doing, but you feel like you should.”
Niall said nothing. He couldn’t deny it, but he didn’t want to admit it either. He might not be ready for Irial to hand all of the court’s backroom bargains, illicit investments, and nefarious dealings over to him, but he felt like he should know about them.
“Either let it ride or tell him he needs to report in more. There’s not a whole lot else to say, is there?” Seth gestured at the now open dartboards. “Come on. Distraction time.”
It had been hours that Sorcha sat unmoving as Devlin brought forth the business that required her attention. One of the mortals that lived among them was mourning. It was a messy business.
“Should I send him back to their world or end his breathing?” Devlin asked her.
“He was a good mortal; he should be allowed to live a while longer.” The High Queen moved one of the figures on her game board. “Remind him that if he’s leaving us he can’t be allowed to see us. You will need to gouge his eyes.”
“They do dislike that,” Devlin remarked.
Sorcha tsked. “There are rules. Explain his options; perhaps it will inspire him to learn to temper his emotions so as to stay here.”
Devlin made a note. “He’s been weeping for days, but I’ll explain it.”
“Some of the discarded paintings were left in a warehouse for the mortals to ‘discover.’” Devlin stepped closer and moved a figurine carved in a kneeling position.
“I’ve not heard any more of War’s intentions.” Devlin’s expression didn’t alter, but she saw the tension he was restraining. “The Dark Court seems unaware. The Summer Court remains clueless . . .”
“The new Winter Queen is not receiving guests. I was refused entrance.” Devlin paused as if the idea of being refused was perplexing to him. He existed from the beginning of time, so it was somewhere between pleasing and befuddling for him when a faery managed to surprise him. “Her rowan said that I could leave a . . . note.”
“So we wait.” Sorcha nodded. The newer fey were peculiar; their methods seemed crude to her sometimes, but unlike her brother, she was not amused by it. It simply was. Emotional reaction to it was unnecessary. She lifted another figurine and dropped it to the marble floor, where it shattered into dust and pebbles. “That play hasn’t worked for centuries, Brother.”
Devlin lifted another piece and replaced it in the same square. “Will you take dinner or will you be in cloister?”
“I’ll be cloistered.”
He bowed and left the hall then, leaving Sorcha alone and free to meditate for the evening. She stood and stretched, and then she too left the stillness of the hall. Even the minutia of business mu
st be handled in the same way it always had been—in austere spaces with reasonable answers.
Only the swish of her skirts disturbed the quiet as Sorcha made her way to the small room where she intended to spend the remainder of the day. It was one of the indoor spaces where she meditated. The gardens were preferable, but tonight she’d opted to forego the openness of such places in favor of the intimacy of a tiny room.
Her slippers made no sound as she entered the empty chamber, nor did she verbalize the moment of discord she felt when she found the room occupied. “I did not summon you.”
Irial stretched on one of the plush chairs she’d had brought in from a local shop. “Relax, love.”
She leveled an unyielding look at the former Dark King. “Faeries of your court aren’t welcome in my presence—”
“It’s not my court. Not now. I’ve walked away.” He stood as he said it, tense as if he had to restrain himself from approaching her. “Do you ever wish you could walk away, Sorch?”
Sorcha cringed at his bastardization of her name, at the familiarity in his tone. “I am the High Court. There is no walking away.”
“Nothing lasts forever. Even you can change.”
“I do not change, Irial.”
“I have.” He was barely a pace away from her then, not touching, but close enough that she felt his breath on her skin. It was all she could do not to shudder. He might not be the Dark King anymore, but he was still the embodiment of temptation.
And well aware of it.
He took the advantage. “Have you missed me? Do you think about the last time we—”
“No,” she interrupted. “I believe I might’ve forgotten.”
“Ah-ah-ah, fey don’t lie, darling.”
She backed away, out of reach. “Leave it alone. The details of the last mistake aren’t even important enough to be clear anymore.”
“I remember. A half moon, autumn, the air was too cold to be so”—he followed, letting his gaze linger on her, as if her heavy skirts weren’t in his way—“exposed, but you were. I’m surprised there wasn’t oak imprinted on your skin.”