THIS KIND OF PUB is always gloomy, you know? It’s like the owners are inviting chicanery. Might as well hang a sign on the door that says dark deeds welcomed here.
Whatever. I won’t be here long. Bran is easy to spot thanks to the light in his hands.
I have to admit it: he’s striking. He leans over his rough wooden table with the perfect amount of poise and slumping, somehow combining strong shoulders and ill motive just enough that no one bothers him. Of course, they could also be leaving him alone because of the light leaking through his fingers.
Maybe I’d better start at the beginning? Yeah. A little less exciting, but it’ll make a lot more sense.
My name is Katie Lin, and two months ago, I adopted a baby dragon.
Well. Technically, the dragon adopted me. Also technically, the dragon is now with my uncle, who’s keeping it because also-also-technically, the baby is really the fulfillment of a prophecy about the “Starling Child” and might be able to lead the Red and Black dragon clans closer to peace.
It sounds grand, doesn’t it? Epic adventure of a lifetime?
Maybe for someone who didn’t grow up in a magical household. I stepped out of that life a long time ago, and I ran all the way to America to prove it.
My uncle knows where I am. The rest of my family doesn’t, and I intend to keep it that way.
I had a sweet little setup in the woods of New Hampshire: a pretty little one-bedroom rental, a decent job translating and digitizing paperwork at a venerable old legal practice in Portsmouth, and no ties to anyone around me.
I mostly live without magic, too. It’s nice. Nicer than you think.
Do you have any idea how unpredictable life gets when everyone has magic? The Ever-Dying—purebred, non-magical humans—read books and think magic would be so neat. Well, it’s not neat. It’s frogs in your underwear drawer because your brother is twelve. It’s suitors who only want you for your ancestral uterus and assume waking you at midnight with a sky full of rainbows and singing trees is the way to prove they deserve to have it.
It’s going to school with others of your kind and when they’re told your last name is Lin, losing any chance of making friends because nobody wants to mess with that branch. And I do mean Branch.
See, my family is of the Kin. Kin—the only kind of “human” who can do magic—which simply means some non-human thing diddled our ancestors, giving us the gene. There are a lot of Kin out there, too, but only nine family names ended up symbolized by the infamous Branch of the Kin.
Look, see it there in the Wheel?
No? Look closer.
Behold the Branch of Kin—which is all symbol-y because we “branch” off from the magic-users, get it? My family, the Lins are the pointy leaf one right at the top.
Yeah, you bet your patootie it’s condescending, but we didn’t get a say. Yet another reason I wanted out.
Anyway. I nearly got my wish. Sure, a baby dragon showed up on my doorstep, but I delivered him to safety and got back home with only a mild crush on the Fey who helped me (a victory, I assure you—Fey are really pretty, and he was nicer than most).
Back to work. Back to ordinary dentists and taxes and nobody caring that my last name is Lin. Back to awesome neighbors who helped me shovel snow (or sent their kids to do it, which is the same thing), and awesome cider and beautiful trees and square American accents and nobody making live snakes spring out of their fingernails or walking around waving big iron wands like swords.
It all went south the day Bran the Crow King showed up at my door.
I was on my way to work. Real work, a real job—which required me to be there on time, which meant leaving ass-early in the morning due to icy roads and thirty-five miles per hour speed limits because New Hampshire.
Despite the cold weather, I was spiffed up in stockings and heels, a cute little trumpet skirt with matching jacket, and a pearl-button blouse (Old Employer Syndrome has its quirks), when I opened my front door to find it occupied.
The Crow King. Bran to his friends, of whom I was not one. The last time we met, he’d kidnapped my uncle and trapped him in a Roc’s head for no reason.
He’s Shadow’s Breath—one of the People of the Darkness—and his real form is huge, red, and strangely cracked like old earth. He has big black horns and big blue eyes and a dark aura so strong it’s a physical force. But of course, he wouldn’t show up like that.
The form he took was drop-dead handsome in a Hollywood-pirate-rogue way. His rumpled black hair was just soft enough to emphasize his sparkling blue eyes and nut-cracking-sharp jawline. Last time I saw him, he’d worn a plain white tee and jeans. Today—on my porch, uninvited—he’d added a black buckle-and-button wool number that probably cost more than my car, manly boots a Japanese rocker would be proud to wear, and a smile.
“Kate!” he said.
I slammed the door.
Okay, I thought. I needed to get to work. Mr. Danner didn’t care about inclement weather or traffic jams; he cared about results, and he wouldn’t appreciate me hiding out in my house all day. I peeked through the peephole.
Yup, Bran was still there. “Kate!” he called again. “We need to talk!”
I didn’t want to waste a sick day on him, dammit. “No, we don’t! Go away!” Did I mention that last time, he also made noise about impregnating me because he’d always wanted some Lin in his bloodline? Told you being magical sucked.
He didn’t go away.
I swear I considered climbing out the window, silk be damned. I considered calling the police—but if he stayed and they came, he’d hurt them, and if he left and they came, I’d look crazy. I would’ve considered other things, but that annoying banging sound was really getting in the way of my planning. Oh, wait. That sound was my head, knocking against the door in abject and complete frustration.
Bran was still there.
I decided to strong-arm it.
“Kate, we need to talk,” he tried again as I physically shoved him out of my doorway (he let me, okay?) and locked up.
“No, we don’t. Go away.” Downside of ice in winter: you can’t really run anywhere, especially in heels. I settled for a sort of slow, sliding march, trying to say with my every inch that this conversation was over.
“I need your help,” he said, following.
“Nope.” Beep beep went my key fob. Fifteen more feet.
“I really do, and you’re the only one who can help me.”
“Ask my uncle. Oh, wait, is he not your friend anymore after what you pulled?” I wobbled, turning pulled into a longer word than planned.
“Of course he is.” Bran looked shocked. “Why wouldn’t he be?”
Told you the whole Roc-head thing made no sense. “Leave me alone,” I said. Bran was royalty. I should probably have said “please.” I didn’t. Oh, well.
The bastard got between me and my door handle at the last moment. “Please. Please.” He got down on his knees in the snow. “Please.”
He wasn’t supposed to say “please.”
Could I get in on the passenger’s side and slide over the armrest? Well, I could, but not without giving the world a show. “Bran. Can I call you Bran? I don’t owe you anything. You’re terrifying to me. You kidnapped my uncle. Did I write you? Did I leave you my email address? No! Leave me alone!”
Damn. I was shouting. This little cul-de-sac only housed me and the Gigueres, and they were a vigilant little family. I looked over.
Nobody was opening blinds or doors yet. But they would if this kept up, and they’d ask if I were in trouble and needed help.
And this guy would hurt them. He wouldn’t see anything wrong with it.
Beyond that bit of reasoning, I could never explain what I did next. “Get in the damn car. Passenger side. You’re coming with me to Portsmouth.”
The weird thing is he did what I said without arguing.
He said nothing as I navigated the roads, muttering at traffic lights that didn’t go my way and hoping old Danner wasn’t in the office yet.
My car was considerably heavier on the right-hand side with him sitting in it. This was not how I’d pictured my morning. “So aren’t you, like… in line to be king of the Darkness, or something?” I said, which was inane and probably rude, but he’s the one who barged into my life, so.
“Okay. That’s not usually an ‘unfortunately’ kind of thing.” It was hard not to look at him. I know the form he wore wasn’t real, but damn, he’d done it right: the hint of stubble, the proportion of jawline to the length of throat he showed above his wool coat, the long-fingered hands that rested on his well-appointed lap—hands that managed to look dangerously powerful and dangerously beautiful at the same time.
All for me? He shouldn’t have.
I braked to let a school bus pass (an empty one—told you this was early in the morning) and made a slow right turn onto Highway 101. Finally, plowed and salted roads! Praise be!
He still looked out the window. All the authority I’d sensed when we met the first time was still there; this was not a man to cross, not a man whose ire you’d be smart to raise. This was a man who could command the shadows to do what he said.
But there was something else there—something pressing the authority down, something hiding the ego and pulling his attention far away from me: fear.
I swallowed. That wasn’t good. If this guy was afraid, whatever was after him had to be awful.
Bran sighed deeply. “It’s my grandfather.”
Was I supposed to know what that meant? “Okay?”
“The Raven King.”
I damn near drove us off the road.
One braking recovery later, we crept along at the speed limit while lunatics passed me on the left. I said nothing; my hands trembled like windshield wipers across dry glass. “That’s… bad.”
“Yes. Yes, it is. He’s after me. I have nowhere else to go.”
Of course I laughed! The Raven King? He’s ancient! Crazy powerful and crazy crazy! And what, now he was coming after the guy in my car? Welp, I was dead. He was dead. We were both dead.
It’s long been my theory that if you can’t laugh when death snarls in your face, you’re just going to cry, and that’s useless. Might as well laugh and have a good time on your way down.
Bran let me laugh. Weirdly enough, I think he understood why.
“Are you nuts?” I finally said. “What am I supposed to do, get blood on you?” I navigated onto Interstate 95—which, to my happiness, had been even more effectively plowed. I was making good time. For all the good it did me.
“No, you’re not getting blood on me.” He didn’t even smirk or turn it into a weird flirt; the guy must have been genuinely terrified. “You’re going to help me find Notte and fight my grandfather back.”
Have you ever had a weird day so weird that you suddenly became certain you were dreaming and decided to treat it as such until it proved itself real? Me neither, but this one came close. “Bran. Honey. I can’t help you.”
“Yes, you can.”
“No.” Turn signal, go around the slow granny. “No, I can’t.” Windshield wipers on to shove the random flurries out of my vision. “I’m not even in practice. I can’t do anything fancier than spells to make tea and remove really bad stains.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
“I don’t think you knew I’d say that.”
“No, I knew you’d say that, so I brought proof.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out half a clamshell.
“Um,” I said, like one does.
“The answer is the lost Lin,” said the half-a-shell in a high, tinny voice, vibrating slightly in his hand. “Find her, and she can take you to one of his children. From there, your path will be easy enough.”
It took me a moment to speak after that.
“What. The hell. Is that?” I said, taking my exit.
“I’ll tell you when you agree to help me,” he said with a smirk.
Great. Now a clamshell was ruining my life.
Portsmouth, already. It’s such a pretty New England town, even prettier than Cabot Cove in Murder She Wrote. The speed limit dropped again and I managed it, idling past the loveliest historical million-dollar homes you ever did see, all done in tasteful stone or “appropriately” period colors, just so quaint and adorable that you can’t help picturing it ready for Christmas with lights and garlands and maybe a few Victorian-era children singing on the corners.
He didn’t fit here. Magic did not fit in my world. I had to get rid of this guy, and soon. “I don’t know Notte. I don’t know his children. I don’t know any vampires at all. Get out of my car.”
Bran smiled as if I’d said the opposite of those things and tucked the shell back into his pocket. “You mean you don’t know you know a vampire. I’ll come with you! We’ll spot him together, and I’ll get out of your hair. How’s that?”
I pulled into the parking lot behind the two-story clapboard home Danner had converted to his offices. It’s yellow, by the way—that particularly odd New England yellow that doesn’t quite look like pee, but close enough.
The flurries had turned wet and nasty. It was a good thing I had a parking permit. Otherwise, well… historical towns do have their downsides, and lack of parking is always one of them.
I locked my car and faced him down. “Listen. To me. I don’t. Know. A vampire. And even if I did, you didn’t need to come to my house to see who I hang out with.”
“Did you just give me permission to spy on you?” he said with a lazy smile anyone more susceptible would be writing about for pages, but not me. Nope. Just two sentences is all you get.
“No!” I shook my hands at him. “Are you crazy? No! I am not giving you permission to spy on me!”
“Then I had no choice but to ask for help, did I?”
“You didn’t give me a choice in helping you! You just… showed up!”
And he looked confused! “I thought that was the better option. I’m not an expert in Ever-Dying protocol, Kate.”
“Do not call me Kate.”
“If you were still under your family’s umbrella, I’d know the proper channels, but as it is—”
The North Church clock tower suddenly chimed the time.
“Dammit! I’m late!” I spun away from him, slipped wildly on ice and caught myself, and lunged for the door beside the discreet sign that said, Danner and Danner, Attorneys at Law.
Of course he followed me in. The stupid clamshell told him to.
I should’ve just called in sick and stayed home.